A young man spies an aged elephant and its longtime keeper after the local zoo has closed. Alone together, their affection is evident in every gesture. "There was no way to mistake the special warmth, the sense of trust, between them. While the keeper swept the floor, the elephant would wave its trunk and pat the keeper's back." When the elephant and keeper begin shrinking before his own eyes, the young man is struck again. The next day's headlines announce that the animal and keeper have vanished, never to be found.
This story provides the title of Haruki Murakami's collection of short stories, "The Elephant Vanishes." One of the best-known young writers in Japan, Mr. Murakami has had two novels translated into English, and his stories recently appeared in Harper's and the New Yorker. Although short story collections seldom make it on the best-seller list, the 17 stories in "The Elephant Vanishes," through their bold originality and charming surrealism, should win the author new readers in this country.
The stories center on the lives of young urban professionals in Tokyo -- legal assistants, public relations officials, dentists -- all of whom grew up in postwar Japan. Not driven by a collective goal to rebuild a destroyed nation, they, as one character suggests, don't know why they are alive. It doesn't even occur to them to ask why until a fantastic incident interrupts their daily routine.
Like the young man in the title story who is moved by the love between the elephant and keeper, the tragedy of the book's other characters is that they cannot have genuine human relations. Their solitude is even more poignant because they are formally or physically linked with others -- as lovers, husbands, wives, mothers -- but not emotionally.
In a story titled "Sleep," a housewife suddenly becomes unable to sleep but doesn't suffer from it physically. She chooses not to tell her husband or son, and at night, when they are asleep, she reads "Anna Karenina" or drives aimlessly in the streets of Tokyo. After 17 days without sleep she is overwhelmed by the self-satisfied look on her sleeping son's face, and she realizes that he and her husband are strangers to her.
In another Joycean epiphany, a woman in "Lederhosen" leaves her husband of many years after a German man tries on a pair of shorts intended for her husband.
For all that, Mr. Murakami's stories are far from bleak. Rather, like Samuel Beckett, the author ekes belly laughs out of characters despairingly alone.
In "The Second Bakery Attack," a baker agrees to give thieves all the bread they want if they listen to the overtures to Wagner's "Tannhauser" and "The Flying Dutchman." "The Wind-up Bird jTC and Tuesday's Women" includes a brilliant scene in which a strange woman berates a man for cooking spaghetti at 10:30 in the morning. Meanwhile, the name "Noboru Watanabe" pops up absurdly in three stories -- attached to the elephant keeper, a suitor and a lost cat.
Although Mr. Murakami sets his stories in Tokyo and peoples them with Japanese names, they could just as well have taken place in New York or any other big city. Indeed, the author, who recently moved to Princeton, N.J., makes countless references to American pop culture. Anyone who has read Truman Capote's "A Tree of Night and Other Stories" will recognize in Mr. Murakami a 1990s mythmaker of the urban world. If "The Elephant Vanishes" seems to portray people leading unredeemable lives, Mr. Murakami, in revealing the small tragedies behind everyday life, redeems their existence.
Some stories are naturally better than others in this excellently translated collection. Mr. Murakami's strengths are in surreal narratives tempered with strong doses of realism, so the weaker stories, such as "The Little Green Monster" and "The Dancing Dwarf," are pure fantasy. Those that strike a balance, however, are as good anything being written anywhere.
Title: "The Elephant Vanishes."
Author: Haruki Murakami.
Length, price: 336 pages, $21.