Why is literature so powerful? A Book Review for The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

  • Arts
  • High School
Irene Chun

I often ask myself, why is literature so powerful? 

After being exposed to an increasing number of books in these past few years, be it through friend’s recommendations, or for English class, I’ve narrowed it down to why literature holds a significant place in my heart. The most fascinating thing about literature is that you can find yourself relating to characters in a book, because it’s so powerful to the point where it possesses the ability to transcend geographical boundaries or the context within the book. Through repeatedly examining the endless themes–endless universal themes that are so intricately packed into a mere hundred or so pages carefully crafted by the author’s striking literary devices has helped me cultivate an ability to produce connections to current affairs; and naturally, it’s helped me grasp fundamental understanding of socio-political issues.

Earlier this year, I had the wonderful opportunity in my IB English class to read a short story by my now favorite author, Haruki Murakami. The short story, called The Elephant Vanishes, is part of a larger collection of short stories, linked here (which I definitely encourage anyone to take a look at). 

To some, this story may initially appear as a piece that simply follows a neglected elephant and its mysterious disappearance; however, when you really examine this piece in scrutiny, readers will be surprised to find that it actually reveals much more–Murakami’s magical realist style of writing is seemingly paradoxical in its nature as mundane aspects of life are described in a surreal manner, which takes on larger issues of Japanese society. This unsettling characteristic effectively communicates themes of disunity that plagues the town, including the narrator. 

Throughout the story, the author compellingly experiments with magical realism to explore themes of society’s cultural progression towards modernity. The story is set in a post-World War 2 Japanese suburban town, where the members of the town are fixated on aspects of modernity rather than emotional concerns. During this post-war industrialist era, Japan had experienced an unprecedented economic growth, popularly referred to as the “bubble” period. 

When I was reading this story, I was instantaneously drawn to this esoteric style of magical realism from the outset. Murakami effectively employs the narrator’s overarching apathetic tone, extended metaphors, and the symbol of the elephant vanishing to undermine the invasive nature of modernity, thereby calling attention to the significance of traditional ideals that are typically forgotten. Ultimately, this even plays into the narrator’s inner conflict, as he attempts to navigate his search for identity when placed in a society with an undercurrent of an eerie and mysterious feeling of alienation, and contrastingly, a paradoxical unity. 

Essentially, the most memorable element of this short story, is that Murakami carefully crafts a seemingly mundane narrative with an overarching current of detachment and apathy, which is then unsettlingly interrupted by the elephant vanishing–an extended metaphor that symbolizes the struggle between the self and modernity. Although the author contends with this uniquely generation-specific struggle of people in late 70’s Japan, there is still a universality that transcends geographical borders, as anyone can find that in the midst of an emerging modern society, one tends to lose their capacity to stay intact with their sense of self and identity. The author therefore posits the question to readers of how an individual is able to come to terms with their search for existence and meaning in the context of such a tumultuous and alienating society, ultimately challenging conventional human experiences and limits.

So I encourage anyone, whether you love literature or not, to engage in reading this piece, because you will find yourself astonished by the grip Murakami holds on you after finishing this story. 

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