‘UFO in Kushiro’ is the first story in Haruki Murakami’s collection After the Quake. The quake refers to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which was the second worst earthquake in Japan in the twentieth century. Indirectly, the earthquake has strange effects on the characters in these stories.
‘UFO in Kushiro’ starts with Komura’s (unnamed) wife staring at the awful news on TV: ‘five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word.’ She withdraws into her own world, not noticing her husband, and when Komura returns from work one day, she isn’t there.
Intriguing disappearances feature heavily in Murakami’s stories. But this isn’t what ‘UFO in Kushiro’ is about. It turns out that Komura’s wife has left a note stating ‘I am never coming back.’ Sort-of heartbroken, Komura takes some holiday from work and ends up delivering a package to a colleague’s sister in Kushiro, Hokkaido. There, he is greeted by this sister and her friend, who ‘would have been quite pretty if her nose hadn’t been so small.’ From there, the trio have interesting conversations about life and a possible UFO sighting (in Kushiro). One of the women, Shimao, tells Komura that he needs to ‘lighten up and learn to enjoy life a bit more. I mean, think about it: tomorrow there could be an earthquake; you could be kidnapped by aliens; you could be eaten by a bear. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.’ Although this is good advice, there is more than a whiff of Manic Pixie Dream Girl to what these women say.
I love both Murakami’s prose style it seems to wash over me, never impenetrable but fairly deep – often musings on the banality and absurdities of life. Murakami himself has said that he wants to make the reader laugh every so many pages, which is something I appreciate. His stories are mysterious and other-worldly without totally leaving the real world. His surreal stories feel grounded and I still don’t know how he does it.
However, I picked up on some irritating things in my second, close-reading of the story. Komura’s wife is plain but he loses his thirst for other women after he marries her. We learn that ‘Komura’s friends and colleagues were puzzled by his marriage’ and that she is ‘ordinary’ in appearance and ‘there was nothing attractive about her personality either’. But it’s cool because ‘his erections’, we’re assured, ‘were hard’. I find it disconcerting that his wife is not named in this story. Sure, she’s unattractive in every way but does that mean that she doesn’t deserve a name? I would have liked to see more of her: why was she zoning out watching the TV news? What did it mean to her? Why did she suddenly vanish?
This was the story I initially enjoyed most in this collection, whereas now my thoughts have changed a little. I have just bought The Elephant Vanishes, though, which I am assured is a better collection. I’m looking forward to reading it.