The Elephant Vanishes is a compilation of short stories by Haruki Murakami, some of which appeared in previous international newspapers and magazines. As expected, the collection is full of Murakami’s usual array of lonely men, mysterious women, surreal scenarios, and ordinary events taking on sudden and unexpected meaning.
Prior to reading this, I had read Murakami’s other short story collection, Blind Willow Sleeping Woman, which I personally felt was a slightly stronger collection on the whole. That aside, I enjoyed almost all stories in this book. All of them were excellent reads and at the end, readers will surely have their personal favorites among the 17 stories.
Below are short descriptions of my favorite short stories (watch out for major spoilers!):
- The Second Bakery Attack. A couple is hit by a sudden wave of intense hunger in the middle of the night. The husband thought he was under a curse when he robbed a bakery years ago. The wife suggested that to get out of the curse, he needs to rob another bakery. But they couldn’t find a bakery so they decided to hold up a McDonald’s and steal 30 Big Macs (yum yum!).
- Sleep. Usually, the protagonist in a Murakami fiction is an unnamed male. But here in Sleep, it involves a female lead character. A housewife finds out that she can’t sleep one day and starts to read a lot during the night when everybody is asleep, thus developing an unusual kind of insomnia.
- Lederhosen. Another female protagonist. A woman visits someone in Germany then divorces her husband after imagining him wearing a pair of lederhosen (those hiking pants that Germans wear) requested for a souvenir. She drags a man in off the streets who has the same build as her husband to fit the lederhosen she bought for his husband. Seeing the stranger’s bare skin as he shows off the lederhosen, she suddenly realizes she hated her husband all through their years together.
- Family Affair. The protagonist is in his thirties but still living with his younger sister who is on the verge of marrying a man and he finds his sister’s fiancee boring. The sister tries desperately to get her brother to take an active interest in her fiancee – to meet his family, have dinner with them and the like. Yet the brother remains in his disinterested state, preferring not to get involved with the affairs of others. It was so hilarious especially when the protagonist is joking around his sister’s fiancee.
- TV People. Small men appear in the narrator’s apartment, rearrange the living room, and set up a television that is not receiving any signal. But these mysterious men don’t seem bothered that they aren’t picking up any broadcast. In fact, they act as if the narrator is not existing there.
- The Dancing Dwarf. A man who works in the ear section of an elephant factory (not toy elephants, but real elephants!) has a succession of dreams about a dancing dwarf and makes a dangerous deal to win the heart of a beautiful woman who also works in the elephant factory. For me, this is the strangest, most magical, most disgusting (the maggots!) and most surreal piece within this book.
Other personal opinions:
- Most favorite story: The Second Bakery Attack, Family Affair and The Dancing Dwarf
- Most hilarious story: Family Affair
- Most confusing story: The Kangaroo Communique (I’m sorry but I didn’t understand this one. Huhu)
- Most mouth-watering story: The Second Bakery Attack (because of the Big Mac) and A Window (because of the different kinds of hamburger steak mentioned)
Another interesting fact in this novel is Noboru Watanabe. This kind of name is given to several characters in several short stories, ranging from a missing cat (The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women) to a sister’s boyfriend (Family Affair) to an elephant keeper (The Elephant Vanishes). Perhaps “Watanabe” is the most common name in Japan.
Overall, Haruki Murakami manages to give all the stories here a unique unity in this one solid body of work. The Elephant Vanishes is definitely a classic Murakami — strange, whimsical, reflective and more than a little confusing. It’s a must-read for all the author’s fans, and could even start as a good point for those who are curious in the work of one of the greatest modern day writers.