BOOK REVIEW / Handful of zero in a spaghetti eastern: The elephant vanishes - Haruki Murakami, trs Alfred Birnbaum & Jay Rubin: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
IN JAPAN, Haruki Murakami's literary novels sell more than a million copies each. In the West, he is labelled 'unJapanese' - a neat irony for a writer whose characters cook spaghetti with chopsticks and listen to Springsteen / Rossini / Julio Iglesias on the (presumably Japanese) stereo.

The Elephant Vanishes is Murakami's first collection of stories. In colloquial, dead-pan prose that happily crosses Borges with the throwaway lines of a depressed comedian, Murakami writes with deadly skill of big-city displacement and the jolt that disrupts the clockwork lives of his drifters and dreamers. These are people who mow lawns, sell encyclopedias, do PR for 'kit-chin' appliances, their ambition long since dissipated in daily sameness. Then something pricks reality's thin veneer. A housewife finds she can't sleep and takes to re-reading Anna Karenina: 'After I gave up sleeping, it occurred to me what a simple thing reality is, how easy it is to make it work. It's just reality. Just housework.' But while her unseeing dentist husband continues to small-talk about dental equipment, she wonders why she married such a blob.

In 'Kangaroo Communique', a complaints clerk in a department store responds to a letter from a girl who bought Mahler when she really wanted Brahms. Locked inside the clerk's head, we follow the bounds of his fractured logic from kangaroos to a nonsensical theory about the Nobility of Imperfection to his desire to exist simultaneously in two places at once. 'Got it? Not three, not four, only two.'

Most collections of short stories work by the interplay of different voices. This one offers the more satisfying rewards of a novel: unity of tone (despite shifting narrators) and a richness of recurring detail that creates its own texture: spaghetti, lawns, hamburgers, beer-drinking, kid sisters, Sunday afternoons, a man's name (almost the only name) that appears variously as a lost cat, a sister's boring fiance, and the elephant-keeper of the title story who inexplicably vanishes one night with his charge, an ageing elephant that had become the town's mascot and was fed on leftover school dinners.

The best stories end with a sharp tug into the unknown. In 'A Slow Boat to China', the narrator recalls three slight encounters with the Chinese that provoke eddies of disquiet: the Chinese adjudicator of an elementary school test; a girl he sends the wrong way round the subway system whose telephone number he accidentally throws away; a Chinese classmate he can barely remember who accosts him in a cafe. Plagued by vague regret for missed opportunities in a world of infinite possibilities, the narrator travels the subways inventing his own vision of China which will one day fall like ash over the Tokyo streets:

We try to scoop it all up in our hands, and what we get is a handful of zero. That's the city. That's when I remember what the Chinese girl said.

'This was never any place I was meant to be.'