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Haruki Murakami's surreal, metaphysical detective novel, ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' , was a sort of test of his readers' allegiance: when a character spends 50 pages just sitting at the bottom of a well and trying to clear his head, you're either in or you're out.

The novel turned out to be the author's most transfixing work, its prose as plain-spoken as ever but its appetites surprisingly epic and dark, particularly for a book about a guy trying to find his cat. Murakami has released three slim novels here in the last few years, if you count the long-delayed American publication of 's ''Norwegian Wood.

None were entirely nourishing. Given the scope of ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,'' the minor-key love stories felt like subplots that had sneaked out of town under cover of darkness and were trying to make a go of it alone. Murakami's new book, ''After the Quake,'' is unexpectedly powerful, a collection of stories, slender and small as a hand, about the emotional aftershocks of the earthquake in Kobe. Murakami has said that he considers himself a novelist above and beyond all else, telling his translator and biographer, Jay Rubin, ''I think it's important to write short stories, and I enjoy doing so, but I believe strongly that if you take away my novels, there is no me.

Even if ''After the Quake'' had nothing to say about Murakami, which it certainly does, I'd gladly settle for what it says about us. Kobe lies in western Japan, a considerable distance from the country's twitchiest fault lines, and was always thought to be fairly safe as far as earthquakes were concerned. But at on a Tuesday morning in January, a quake struck nonetheless, causing tens of thousands of old blue and brown tile roofs to fall in, killing more than 4, people and leaving nearly , homeless, including Murakami's parents.

It took 20 seconds. I'm laying all this out, like a sixth grader's oral report, because it will be hard for Americans to read ''After the Quake'' without taking the earthquake as a metaphor for the attack on the World Trade Center. It's worth remembering that Murakami wrote these stories before Sept.

The six stories in ''After the Quake'' are all set in February , a month after the earthquake and a month before cult members carried out a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Which is to say that Murakami has chosen to freeze in time the moment when Japan was staggering away from the scene of one tragedy and, unknowingly, toward another.

The twin disasters moved the author himself to return to Japan after years of self-imposed exile in the United States and write the nonfiction book ''Underground. The opening story, ''U. For five days, Komura's wife watches earthquake reports around the clock, barely eating, never speaking.

On the sixth day, she walks out on him, leaving a note that reads: ''The problem is that you never give me anything. Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air. In the end, the mystery drives him close to violence. The box, presumably, is a symbol for Komura himself. Either it contains his soul, and he's just handed it to a stranger -- or it's been empty all along.

Murakami has always been drawn to characters who feel empty inside -- if you take away my novels, there is no me -- and the earthquake has only heightened their sense of dislocation. The pair make hypnotic bonfires on a beach, form a bond and trade fears until, one night, the artist says: ''I don't know.

We could die together. What do you say? The frog tells Katagiri that he needs his aid in the battle against an enormous worm that lives beneath Tokyo and is planning to unleash a crippling earthquake. Shall I croak for you? I mean, unless there really was a six-foot frog. With Murakami, you never know. The final story in ''After the Quake,'' ''Honey Pie,'' comes closest to spelling out Murakami's message, which, with apologies to Rilke, is something along the lines of: you must change your life, if you can even call it a life.

An agonizingly passive writer named Junpei gets a second chance to marry a woman he's never once stopped thinking about. Astonishingly, he equivocates. Then the earthquake hits: ''He hadn't set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought. I'm not connected to anything.

Yes, Murakami wrote these stories before Sept. Still, he must know how ''After the Quake'' will resonate in the United States. One sliver of what makes the book so moving is the sense that on some level it is Murakami's deeply felt get-well card. Books A Shock to the System. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.

After the Quake Stories. By Haruki Murakami. Translated by Jay Rubin. New York: Alfred A. Home Page World U.


A Shock to the System

Once it goes out, and it turns pitch-dark, then we can die. This short story, part of a group of stories entitled After The Quake , occurs over the course of one night with three friends sitting around a bonfire. Miyake is an older man with an obsession in building the perfect bonfire. He befriends Junko, a young woman who lives with her boyfriend Keisuke and is estranged from her family.


Landscape with flatiron

Poetry books too are solicited for reviewing. However, there are some genres I tend to avoid. Feel free to ask me. I must mention here that I read at my own pace and depending on my mood.

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