BOOK REVIEW / Mould-breakers turned inside out: 'The Elephant Vanishes' - Haruki Murakami; Tr. Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin: Hamish Hamilton, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE novel with which Japan's best-selling writer Haruki Murakami made his reputation, Norwegian Wood, has never been published in the West - even though an English translation of this four-million seller has been on sale in Japan for six years, in an annotated pocket edition aimed at Japanese readers trying to improve their English.

The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of short stories whose meandering narrators have the rootless, shiftless, listless air of characters waiting around for something to happen. Murakami's heroes are mould-breakers and dropouts, but their unconventionality is far more striking in a Japanese context than in the stale American accents of these translations.

The title story, placed at the end, is an inconclusive tale of a missing elephant, which vanishes under the narrator's eye in a way that involves altered perceptions of relative size. This theme also appears in the more bizarre 'TV People', in which a group of mild subversives, shrunk by a third, step in and out of screens and dreams in a manner that disquiets the narrator more than the reader.

Murakami is billed as a surrealist who places unfamiliar images against a banal background, but translation reverses the effect, and the Japanese day-to-day touches of diet, behaviour and housing are the ones that seem surreal, while the dream images (imported from movies and thrillers) are exactly those that the pulp-fiction manner of the translation leads you to expect. When a couple hold up a bakery we hear that 'the shotgun shells in her pocket rustled like buckwheat husks in an old-fashioned pillow'. Shotgun shells are hardly common in Japan, but it is the bran-stuffed pillow that holds our attention - having slept on one, I can vouch for the strange breakfast-cereal crackling sound it makes. Murakami's suburban types eat bad spaghetti, drink beer, protest against their boring jobs and sometimes jack them in, but this seeming familiariy only makes the occasional reminders of Japan's remoteness more striking. You have to blink to register the effects as effective, the shocks as shocking.