Lydia Heberling: The Last Book I Loved, After the Quake

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I feel like now is an inappropriate time to admit that the last book I loved is a book called After the Quake by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, a book more or less about Japan’s last devastating earthquake in Kobe.

I wrote most of this a week ago, the day before the last quake, and having spent all of last Thursday intensely focused on writing about a book about an earthquake–especially an earthquake in Japan–I feel kind of personally responsible for this quake, as if I’d made it happen. Which would be crazy, except I have a history of weird earthquake premonition: the last two earthquakes – the Chile and Haiti quakes – I dreamt about earthquakes the night before both. I’m just saying.

I have, in the past few years, cultivated a rather quirky obsession with earthquakes. There is something deeply fascinating in the raw force of the earth shifting and reshaping itself, something beautiful in the unstoppable power of violent geological movement. You may call it a twisted fascination, and you’d be right. But I will say that my fascination is quickly evolving into heartache and terror; for, as devastatingly beautiful as they’ve landscaped our world, earthquakes really are just devastatingly sad.

In After the Quake Murakami captures the tenuous nature of humans’ relationship to earthquakes: “Strange and mysterious things though, aren’t they – earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being ‘down to earth’ or having their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that it isn’t true.”

This collection of short stories tangentially revolves around the disastrous earthquake in Kobe. The earthquake catalyzed six narratives that guide readers through the chain of human response in the aftermath. The quake, rather than playing an active role in the book, looms hauntingly over the lives of all the characters. Not enough can be said of Murakami’s brilliance in being able to pull his readers down into the depravity of the human condition in light of such events. Few writers, and few events, can remind us of the absurdity of life as well as he and earthquakes can.

The first story begins with characters calculating the loss caused by the earthquake. The TV blares non-stop; the newspapers lay scattered everywhere. One character sits silently and absorbs the statistics of loss until it consumes her. When disaster hits, we like to quantify the event, to construct a rational understanding of what happened so we can file it away as categorically tragic, next to the 2010 quake in Haiti and the 2004 tsunami in Thailand.

Once we have calculated the loss we begin to consider the transience of life, and the inevitability of death and destruction, which is what Murakami’s second story considers thematically. The characters sit around a bonfire, their conversation shifting between pasts they’d rather not discuss, a consuming emptiness each feels, and the appeal of death in light of their current situations. Murakami’s use of bonfires as an extended metaphor doesn’t escape notice; there is irony in investing so much time and energy into building something, as one of the characters does, that will only be burned.

And so, facing the inevitability of death and destruction, we turn to find answers. Religion is first in line to provide pat responses to all the tragedies in life. In the third story Murakami nods at the knee-jerk reaction of most religious groups to form teams and move in on a devastated area, providing blankets, water and doctrine to the most severely effected individuals. Meanwhile, those same religious people leave behind friends and family who have been injured by that same religion, and this story is told from that person’s perspective. He demonstrates how religion ultimately failed to provide a real and lasting solution in his life, as it does in many people’s lives.

And when characters are left without an effective religious band-aid to cover the wounds, they revisit our contemplation of death. The fourth story takes place in Thailand where the main character has gone for vacation, because she’s tired of life. Her driver takes her to visit a kind of fortune teller who instructs her to deal with the inevitability of death, and in doing so find a new kind of life where she can focus on the things that truly matter.

This is where the book gets interesting. The fifth story in the collection is a story titled “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” and tells readers about a less than average man who is visited by an entity called Super Frog–”the sum of all frogs”–who requires the help of this particular less than average man to save Tokyo from another imminent and more destructive earthquake set to occur three days from the story’s present. Together the team of man and Super Frog have the power to stop the quake and save all of Tokyo, if they fight the evil force, Worm. I mean, think about it: what IF it was within our power to prevent a catastrophe? Would we? Even if it means believing in the authority and existence of something as absurd as Super Frog and Worm? This story revisits the idea of faith–believing in something–in a pretty hilarious but more meaningful way: If faith can save the lives of millions, is it worth making that leap?

Murakami concludes his collection of stories with a story about what really matters, which John Lennon summed up as: “All you need is love.” Love, in the sixth story, is hard, painful, devastating and almost out of reach; but in the end it’s all that matters.

I loved this book before last week’s earthquake, because it illuminated a few things about my own condition at the time that I read it. But now the truth in this collection of fiction has a new depth to it; its general conclusions have become amazingly relevant and important to us this week. It offers no solutions and I don’t even think it offers much comfort, but it holds a hauntingly accurate mirror to our world now.


Lydia Heberling is 26, unemployed, and speaks conversational Thai. Although she has a degree in literature and English education, she's really hoping to just teach swim lessons and write all summer. She has been published in the San Diego Natural History Museum's 2009-2010 annual report and the Point Loma Nazarene University Alumni Magazine. She's working on a novel that her friends tells her she needs to finish and publish while she's "still relevant." More from this author →