The Elepant Vanishes, Kangaroo Communique, Haruki Murakami

Dear Mr. M,

 

Hello. Hope life is treating you well. 

I have been a big reader of your work since my late teens, and your TV People was the very first book that ignited my love of reading novels. So, I give my heartfelt gratitude to you for having given it to me. Thank you.

Recently, I finished your translated edition of Far North by Marcel Theroux—a colleague had recommended it and given it to me as a gift. Although, personally, I don’t tend to gravitate toward post-apocalyptic themed survival stories, surprisingly, I read it without pause and with much enjoyment. Great, great job translating such a profound piece packed with all that thought-provoking insight. 

Because of this recent reunion with your writing, last Saturday, I thought of reading one of your short stories. It was an unhurried afternoon. I poured myself sparkling white wine in a big, round pudgy glass, and sat in the chair, my legs long-stretched out onto the desk. I know it’s a bit ill-mannered, but it was a Saturday afternoon spent in my own room, and I was on my way to getting slowly and serenely intoxicated… So, what the hell. 

I picked Kangaroo Communique because I remembered it being hip and funny, and it was well suited for the mood I was in. I wanted to read it first in Japanese, and because I also wanted to share it with D who was right next to me, I asked if he might read it in English when I finished. 

So, there I was, reading Kangaroo Communique and drinking a carbonated fine beverage in my favorite glass. Right off the bat, you got me. 

 

Say hey, How’s tricks? 

This morning, I paid a call on the kangaroos at the local zoo. Not your biggest zoo, but it’s got the standard animals. Everything from gorillas to elephants. Although if your taste runs to llamas and anteaters, don’t go out of your way. There, you’ll find neither Ilama nor anteater. No impala or hyena, either. Not even a leopard. 

Instead, there are four kangaroos. 

[ . . . ]

Every time I set eyes on a kangaroo, it all seems so improbable to me: I mean, what on earth would it feel like to be a kangaroo? For what possible reason do they go hopping around in such an ungodly place as Australia? Just to get killed by some clunky stick of a boomerang? 

 

See, like in this beginning section, the whole thing is hip and funny. Undeniably well crafted. But, the more I seek to understand the meaning of Kangaroo Communique, the stranger I find myself feeling about it.  

 

Come to think of it, I forgot to mention that I’m calling this letter Kangaroo Communique.    

 

This sender of the letter, or the cassette tape, is quite an oddball. Everything he says appears to be so unrelated, and he seems to be taking a big leap in connecting kangaroos to a woman who has written a letter of complaint to his workplace. It’s an odd pair of things to lump together, but somehow these circumstances and a host of others that day, are the very reasons he finds himself directed to consider the idea of imperfection. 

Two major things from his recording have me wondering where he’s coming from. First, I wonder: 

Why is he so uniquely attracted to the woman’s letter of complaint? He says the letter doesn’t have any emotion, that he can’t sense the person who’s written it, and that there’s no character in it whatsoever. And yet, that’s the exact reason why he’s fascinated by it. Why? What is it about having a blank personality he finds appealing? Such a personality would be like an empty bento box… a container with dividers and no food in it for me to enjoy… a framework with no flesh. He then goes on to compare the letter to “a news photo from the scene of a massacre,” as if it were “a shot of dead bodies” with no commentary, no explanation, no nothing. After drawing this comparison, he then says the letter makes him feel aroused. This had me really puzzled. I thought maybe he might be a psycho type who is aroused by violence. But, after asking D what he thought of this, I considered it might have just been certain mysterious properties about the letter he might have been attracted to. The letter got him wondering who, what, why? Just as a photo of a massacre without an accompanying article would have people wondering, “What happened?” 

Another is:

What’s up with him and separate entities? Why does being a single entity make him feel disturbed? Why is thinking about it emotionally difficult for him? He doesn’t want to be alone? Will he be eaten up by the thought of being alone? He says passengers on the train bother him because at some point he begins to notice each person as an individual entity. They pop out in front of him one by one, and feeling this way urges him to punch the emergency-brake button in order to stop the train and get out. What really is the matter with him? Might he have issues functioning in human society, and in possession of skin that’s too thin? He assures me he’s not hypersensitive or highly strung, and that he’s your everyday guy next door, your ordinary salaryman. But still, I wasn’t completely convinced… Again, I asked D, and he suggested the narrator could be an introvert who would appreciate zoning out into his own space with no other people visually breaching his personal boundary. Because he tends to end up paying attention to small details when he’d rather avoid noticing them altogether, he inevitably finds himself disturbed. D has shared that he too can’t stand noises on the train, and that when it’s too loud and he can’t shut them out, it becomes intolerable. Hearing him say that, I wondered if you too, Mr. M, are like the narrator of the story or my beloved D who appreciates solitude in some way or another, and if the narrator is a partial reflection of you.        

I love how your stories tend to have many layers and this particular story is no exception. My initial reading gave me lots of laughs, and you literally had me laughing out loud on several occasions. On my second and third reads, though, certain passages stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder what you were really talking about. You leave just enough room for me to wonder and think deeply about certain ideas you present, or for D and I to discuss pleasurably the passages of the story. It’s like your story is a prism. If I tilt it a certain way, depending on the angle, the color I get is different each time. This is a talent only true writers possess. It’s nice because you have this ability to create prismatic, multi-tiered stories, and I can enjoy the story differently depending on how I approach it. 

D and I talked about imperfection—an apparent theme of the story. We talked about what perfection is, and what imperfection might mean to the narrator. We thought he might be aiming for something unreasonably unattainable as his idea of perfection. He says he wants to be in two places at the same time—he’d like to roller-skate while attending the orchestra, be a quarter pounder (!) while still working as a product control staff member in the department store, and sleep with the sender of the letter while simultaneously still being able to sleep with his current girlfriend. Could those crazy, bizarre wishes actually be what he deems to be perfection? I mean, who on the earth should be allowed to sleep with two women at the same time (from a woman’s point of view)?! Could he be unsatisfied and bothered by not being able to have everything? And, could it be that seeing kangaroos in a zoo and reading the woman’s letter has helped him become more mature so he’s able to realize, in some way, it might be best to not get hung up on this idea of seeking perfection? Maybe he needs to come to terms with imperfection and recognize he can’t always make his ideals reality. And maybe the kangaroos and the woman serve as guides because he seems to be in need of some sort of guidance in order to live life with less tension. 

Presumably, he has two sides—two opposing characters existing within him. Like yin and yang. Is it possible he can clearly see his dark side—his egoistic side—and at the same time see his humble side, and be trying to balance the two forces? And is he hinting that he wants to lay bare both sides fairly? No concealing, no masking—trying to be honest about who he is? In reading the story, it seems that even if that may cause him to be pulled apart from the idea of perfection (or expected goodness), just for once he wants to be okay with imperfection and accept his human nature with all its qualities, both good and bad. As creator of this character, do you possess the same qualities? 

This less-than-fifteen-page story got me thinking about a lot of things, and wanting to share those ideas with others. And at first, because I was so impressed and infatuated with the work, I actually thought of writing a reply to the narrator as the woman from the story. But, I realized I couldn’t ruin your fine art so casually, for I have way too much respect for you and the work itself. So, instead, I decided to write a letter directly to you. I suppose I could have written in Japanese since you and I are both Japanese, but something about you, this story, how I read it, and how I’m affected by it, made me want to write my letter in English. A woman’s mood, I guess, just like on any given day, I might select a fluffy mauve dress over a tight black turtleneck with skinny blue jeans. That decision too would be totally mood oriented.

To change the subject… How does it feel to know people talk about you in places you may not traffic? Like on social media, for example. Because you’re so famous, I see a lot of people talking about you. Sometimes, people offer negative opinions about your body of work, suggesting it’s weird or lacking character variation, or commenting that it falls into similar themes, patterns, etc, etc… Some people brazenly put down your unique figure of speech, and say you’re posturing or putting on airs. Frankly, those people irritate me. I resent the offering up of such worthless comments when all such individuals know about you or your work is what they’ve likely picked up from somewhere else, and worse yet, from that someone who seems to have put in no legitimate effort to understand the work. Do these people even read you at all? They don’t read shit! Certainly they’re not using a fair lens to critique what you present. Maybe they’re jealous of you, or they may want to look cool bashing you. I’d say it’s absolutely not fair for one to offer negative opinions about someone’s hard work—the result of blood, sweat, and tears, when that person criticizing hasn’t done their homework. They’re “armchair quarterbacks” (a new expression learned from D). When I read any sort of writing, I can usually tell who’s bullshitting me and who’s not. I can sense greatness in your stories, and with this story in particular, can feel you’re not bullshitting me. 

It is my wish for you to know I have the utmost admiration for you, and I celebrate and support your talent.  (Frankly, I’m a bit envious of it.) 

When I finished reading Kangaroo Communique that Saturday afternoon with my white, bubbly wine in my hand, legs still up on the desk, I knew D would fall in love with it as well, and like I mentioned earlier, asked right away if he would read Birnbaum’s translated version to me. As I well guessed, he was hooked immediately. It was cool to hear him comment, “Wow… this is really good… do you notice how I don’t stumble on the passages I’m reading? That’s because this is so well written. Both Murakami and Birnbaum did a wonderful job. I’d love to meet Murakami in person and have a chat over dinner or something.” Hearing him say that, I pictured us together, you, D, and me, sitting plopped deep into a comfortable sofa drinking whisky, talking with one another about your stories. 

I’ll keep wishing, with the gift of a miracle, that day will arrive. 

Respectfully yours. 

Reiko  

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