By John Wilson
After the Quake
In the next several weeks, we'll be bombarded with words and images in every conceivable media format, seeking to commemorate the events of 9/11 and maybe even make a buck in the process. The books have already started to arrive: What We Saw, for instance, a compendium of CBS coverage introduced by Dan Rather and published by Simon & Schuster, featuring "The Events of September 11, 2001—in Words, Pictures, and Video" (included with the book is a DVD of CBS's news coverage).
But maybe some of the best books to mark the occasion, if you are so inclined, will be books that weren't written explicitly for that purpose. One such is Haruki Murakami's slim book of stories, After the Quake (Knopf).
Japan suffered two extraordinary shocks in 1995 in the space of only a couple of months. In January of that year, the port city of Kobe was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 4,000 people and displaced several hundred thousand. The city, much of which had been rebuilt after massive destruction in World War II, lay in ruins. In March, while the nation was still reeling from that disaster, the apocalyptic sect Aum Shinrikyo sought to hasten the end of the world by releasing the nerve gas, sarin, in the Tokyo subway. While only eleven people died, more than 5,000 suffered from exposure to the gas, and the psychological impact on the Japanese people was incalculable.
Murakami, a best-selling Japanese novelist who had been living for some time in the United States, decided to return to Japan. In response to the Aum Shinrikyo attack, he interviewed many victims; he also interviewed current or former members of Aum. The two short books he produced as a result were published in one volume in English translation as Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (Vintage, 2001), reviewed earlier this year in the pages of Books and Culture ["Comparative Terrorism," by Christopher Harmon, March/April 2002].
In response to the quake, Murakami wrote a series of six short stories, each of which is set in February 1995. Published in Japan in 2000 under the title of one of the stories, "All God's Children Can Dance," the book has just appeared in English as After the Quake.
Certain writers have an indefinable gift for expressing the mood of their times. Murakami is one such writer. He has a winsomely quirky imagination that reminds me of the late Richard Brautigan, a taste for the outrageous in the vein of Tom Robbins (less winsome, to me at least), and some of the perversity that is so common in modern Japanese literature (Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, et al.), but more casual, nonchalant. His young people may be Japanese, but they are uncannily similar to many young people in America. Much of what gets called "postmodern" is fleshed out in Murakami's fiction, above all the pervasive sense of arbitrariness and the absence of any stable system of belief.
How does such a writer respond to disaster? After the Quake is Murakami's answer. Running through the stories is dissatisfaction with the unthinking materialism that is so powerful in Japan as well as in the United States. Dreams play a role in many of the stories; there are repeated intimations of other realities, of cosmic conflicts between good and evil (but perhaps the good and evil are somehow intertwined, interdependent). Above all, there are the virtues of love and commitment. The last story in the book concludes:
But right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl. I will never let anyone—not anyone—try to put them into that crazy box—not even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar.
The protagonist of "All God's Children Can Dance" is the son of a devout Christian woman. It is interesting to see how her faith is treated. She is in some ways a figure of absurdity, yet she and other volunteers from her church have gone to help the quake victims while the protagonist gets drunk. The mother's beliefs are presented in a caricature of popular Christianity (though you only have to turn on the tv or the radio to recall that such caricatures didn't grow out of thin air), and at first the reader may suppose that this is nothing more than another dismissal of the faith as not simply untrue but downright ridiculous.
And yet as the story twists and turns to a characteristically strange ending—the young man alone in the middle of the night, dancing on the pitching mound in an empty baseball stadium—the last words are a cry from the heart: " 'Oh God,' Yoshiya said aloud."
"Oh God." Is there a better response to Kobe, to Aum Shinrikyo, to 9/11?
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)
Stop, Drop, and Cover … | Then hack your lungs out and die. (June 3, 2002)
Death of an Evolutionist | RIP Stephen Jay Gould. (May 31, 2002)
Closing The X-Files … | … with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is … | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)