The purpose of Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake, goes beyond character development and storytelling. Murakami and his characters are attempting to fully fathom the significance of the Kobe earthquake. This is not a direct focus and none of the characters confront the literal earthquake through gesture or elaborate consideration. However, the real-life Kobe earthquake made fully-established physical, social, and psychological foundations entirely turbulent, and there is no better way to conceptualize the ramifications of that turbulence than through introspection.
This approach assumes a deep and unfathomable relationship between the spiritual ruminations of humans and the movements of the earth, or characters and their settings. The conflict between that unfathomable relationship and the desire to fathom a turbulent event that explicitly disrupts that relationship could be the epicenter of this short story cycle. This fathoming is a form of control. What matters is the aftershock, and each character must, in some way, learn to escape their desire to control their environment.
In Jonathan Boulter’s article “Writing Guilt: Haruki Murakami and the Archives of Nathional Meaning,” he uses Sigmund Freud to label the unifying conflict of After the Quake as Melancholia. He reiterates Freud and says:
The Melancholic failing—or refusing—to metabolize loss, being unable to identify the precise nature of the loss but knowing that some loss has occurred, is thus permanently, painfully, tied to loss, to the unknowable event of loss, to an unknowable unnamable history.(131)
Boulter also cites Eng and Kazanian to establish that Melancholia is the “only ethical response to loss precisely because [it] keeps the memory of loss alive, refuses the comfort of forgetting what should not be forgotten”(131-132). So, through melancholia the characters remain like cemented buildings in the middle of a psychological earthquake as they need to preserve the history of trauma. More importantly, there is no way for them to grasp their psychological conflict because the conflict is exacerbated by their attempts to understand it.
Boulter illustrates this more effectively, as he projects the conflict towards Murakami:
“Melancholia may work to maintain history, but the melancholic, not knowing “what” he [Komura] has lost, can never name that loss. In this manner Komura is the perfect (melancholic) allegory of the writer who cannot articulate the “unknown loss” that trauma initiates”(132).
By dwelling in his stories, through writing them, Murakami has to escape the loss himself, and he does.
Many of the stories in After the Quake end with the main character falling asleep. In this way they resign from the physical world where they have to actively exist and experience superficial opposition. Many of them come very close to radical action but do not follow through. In “UFO in Kushiro,” Komura “realized he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence”(23). In “Landscape With a Flatiron” Junko and Miyake, both agree to commit suicide but instead fall asleep, letting the fire die. In some ways this displays a common extermination of the Japanese will, but it also displays a calming of internal conflict.
As they forget their external struggle for identity, comfort, routine, or family, they reenter the collective Japanese consciousness through sleep. For example, in “Thailand” Satsuki is made, externally, to realize that she must accept her death. On the plane, in the sky,
“She tried to think about what lay ahead, but soon gave up…All at once the image came to her of the sky she had seen while swimming on her back. And Erroll Garner’s “I’ll Remember April.” Let me sleep, she thought. Just let me sleep. And wait for the dream to come”(90).
What is important here, beyond her rest and resignation, is the fact that she is in the sky that she had previously considered externally. She has entered the realm of her psychological conflict and will passively eliminate it by escaping its consideration.
Boulter thinks that the most important resignation is not through sleep. He makes a good point too, when he suggests that Yoshiya’s acceptance of his lack of meaning in “All God’s Children Can Dance,” is a focal point of After the Quake. He cites Yoshiya’s realization as a direct suggestion that “connections between events, whether temporal or causal, at times do not function.” He continues to say,
“Yoshiya’s indifference to the nature of his identity—precisely, his indifference to the narrative of his identity—itself becomes a sacrament. And yet, enmeshed in this sacrament…is a feeling of crime committed and punishment deferred”(134).
In any case, the primary solution towards trauma appears to be a loss of identity.
Murakami begins to enter his text towards the end of the short story cycle, in “Honey Pie,” by creating an allegorical character who is a writer. The resulting microcosms get fairly complicated if you consider the fact that Murakami, as the writer of this cycle, is repeatedly experiencing loss and refusing to let it go. So is his character Junpei, and so are Junpei’s characters, the bears. The change in the bear’s situation is directly relatable to Murakami and every other character in After the Quake.
Even though every character indirectly or passively—or even proactively in Katagiri’s case—confronts their conflict, Junpei and Sayako are the only characters to actively leave a negative mind frame at the end of their story. By suggesting that Storytelling is a positive method of confronting melancholy, Murakami is escaping the paradox that would keep him from writing the book in the first place. That paradox lies within the suggestion of Melancholia’s, that the best way to escape loss is to let it go — and that writing keeps remembering loss. However, Boulter notices this and he says,
The writing of disaster becomes the disaster of writing, the failure, the guilty failure, to translate the event, the disaster, the narrative that must contain the past in order to work it through…What remains of the text, in the text, what indeed, can only be remains, are the traces, the cinders of the trauma: the writing that immolates as it speaks its failure to speak.(144)
Only after Murakami has established the context and specific psychological ramifications of trauma can he show himself in Melancholia and show his audience by example how to escape trauma. It is essential that he enters in the last story, and even more essential, more essential than most stories, that his ends. The best ending, the most healing, for After the Quake is simply that it ends, that it stops speaking and that it stops remembering. The author first resigns his individual characters, his individual demons, and then resigns himself.
Boulter, Jonathan. “Writing Guilt: Huraki Murakami and the Archives of National Mourning.” English Studies in Canada 32.1 (2006): 125-145. EbscoHost. Web. 1 March 2010.
Murakami, Haruki, and Jay Rubin. After the Quake: Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Print.