The Elephant Vanishes

This is a paper analyzing a short story that I had to do as part of my course.

There are only two ways you can go with Murakami’s stories. Either you like them, or you cannot make up your mind whether you like them or not which is the scenario most of the times. They are genuine mind-benders. The writing style is a tad unconventional, wacky for certain and gives the reader the liberty to interpret the story the way he wants to. So basically, Murakami leads you by hand towards the end and leaves you stranded, scratching your head, not sure which way to go.

Reading every story is like a mad hunt to find the crux, to find the main issue, to find the prominent standpoint which the author wants to bring to the table for it is incisively implicit. Moreover, it isn’t just one standpoint we are looking for. It is a truckload of them. Murakami manages to jam a panoply of viewpoints in a single short story so by the time you get to the end of it, you are addled and not sure where you want to go with the story. You are not even sure whether you like the story or not. A classic from his congregation of short stories is “The Elephant Vanishes”.

Just by looking at the title, it immediately hits you that it is going to be something wacky, something left of center that is really out there. Murakami, a fervent follower of surrealism, an element that he incorporates in his stories, presents these bizarre and inexplicable ideas and circumstances to his readers and while you might be tempted to call them preposterous, it could well be your inability to grasp the supernatural. Like any other Murakami story, the themes are galore however there is one theme I feel, is written all over the story and overshadows the rest.

A pivotal aspect of the story is things being out of proper balance. The story is set amidst an affluent citizenry in Japan at a time when the country was undergoing a momentous transition, making its way in leaps and bounds towards urbanization. It was a period of tremendous economic upsurge and the theme is closely inter-linked with the principles of the urban world where the author feels that individuality is compromised for the sake of collective consumerism.

The urban world demands balance. It demands unity in design, color and function. This theme was first exploited in the story when the narrator highlights the importance of unity in design in something as tedious as kitchen equipment to the editor of the women’s magazine, stating that “Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings”. He lays emphasis on the fact that unity in design, color and function is something which a kitchen equipment just cannot do without which aptly sums up the urban world.

The scope for lateral thinking is very diminutive. The narrator himself did not believe that unity in design, color and function was all that was needed to propel the marketing of a piece of kitchen equipment but being a part of the urban world, his personal opinion did not count, his singularity was thrown out of the window. The urban world demands you to be pragmatic and not let your own opinions or feelings get in the way of what is expected of you.

The narrator was immensely successful as a salesperson even though his personal opinion conflicted with that of his company’s. He did what his company expected of him, he adopted what he called a more “pragmatic” approach, toed the line, but amidst all this, he lost the track of his own uniqueness. It is this trait of the urban world, this crazy demand for an unerring balance that makes urban people rigid and narrow-minded.

People become incapable of processing or accepting the supernatural for they lack severely in the element of out-of-the-box thinking. Norm and balance are the entities that emblazon the urban world and the narrator, who was an old-school kind of a person was not comfortable with either of them. It is essentially a factory that produced emotionless and boring people who are hardwired for proper balance and norms.

The narrator saw the elephant shrinking before his own eyes and while he fully believed it to be the gospel truth, he was probably the only one to do so. He was hesitant at sharing this with the officials for he felt that he would be laughed at.

The newspaper article that covered the disappearance of the elephant was eerie and incoherent as was the reporter who just could not give in to the idea of supernatural disappearance and succumbed to circumlocution. Not only the reporter, but the populace in general could not accept anything that defied logic, any scenario that derailed from the route of rationality. This just goes to show that the urban world is enveloped by a strong sense of denial wherein people continue to live their banal lives under the guise of normality amidst the most outlandish of circumstances.

When there was clearly no logic pointing to the fact that something as gigantic and not exactly the stealthiest, as an African elephant had managed to escape on its own, a profound sense of denial overcame the reporter and the police that forced them to back this untenable logic with fierce tenacity. It forced them to beat about the bush. It enabled them to completely evade the possibility of something fantastic.

The most apt example of a typical urban mindset is the editor of the magazine for women. The narrator and the editor were getting along well and just when their relationship was about to take a whole new dimension, the discussion about the vanished elephant killed it all and the author never saw her again after that. The author told her all that he saw on the evening of the disappearance, the elephant shrinking, the keeper growing in size or bit of both. When he was finished, there was a complete change in the demeanor of the woman who now saw the author as mad and crazy and lost all interest in him. This again is a testimony to the fact how urban mindset fails to imagine, much less comprehend the fantastic and the intuitive.

Throughout the story, Murakami lightly mocks the urban way of life, their demand for balance and unity in design that induced responses with high degree of ineptitude to the extraordinary. At the same time, he feels poignant and craves for the old days where there was a genuine sense of camaraderie between the people.

The narrator, like a typical protagonist in a Murakami story, is a loner, isolated, with no family or friends. He had developed endearment for the unspoken yet overt bond between the elephant and its keeper and watching them go about their things warmed him, enabling him to derive happiness into his own life. However, when the elephant disappeared, the author felt atrabilious and deserted than ever but the fantastical manner in which the elephant disappeared broke a kind of natural balance inside him.

The author was left incapacitated and found it increasingly difficult to make his own decisions. Not used to demand for order around him, he was ceaselessly nagged by the feeling that the urban world was out of balance. With the urban world home to only coherence and rationality, the author begins to doubt his own perception and consequently, experiences frustration and a bedlam of emotions that leaves him horribly disoriented.

The story starts with the fantastic disappearance of the elephant and the reader falls under the impression that it is a mystery and that keeps his curiosity going because the disappearance of a mammoth elephant without overt traces or clues is certainly very intriguing. However, the mystery remains unresolved, the mysterious disappearance of the elephant is never uncovered.

The author has his own theory behind the disappearance and while he is a credible source of information (gauging from the meticulousness with which he had collected and maintained his collection of newspaper articles regarding the elephant and its activities), the final call to decide whether the narrator was hallucinating and seeing things or, he was actually seeing them right, rests with the reader.

The plot seeks to push the envelope and I reiterate, is mind-bending so you just feel like reading on further without being sure of whether you like it or not which I believe is a testimony to the novelty of the story. The narrator is stuck between two worlds, the old way of life which he cherishes and the urban world and as a result, he is persistently plagued by a feeling of imbalance.

On balance (good pun actually), the author is definitely trying to get a point across albeit, it may seem that he is gallivanting, going nowhere with the story. It is neither a mystery, nor a fantastic story. The title is delusive and while you might be tempted to think it is all about the elephant, what it is essentially, is all about a clash of perceptions with the author trapped right between them, that never seem to reach a consensus.

The elephant is merely a symbol of the old way of life that is being quickly replaced by the modern one. The zoo, where the elephant used to live before, being supplanted by a high-rise condo building signifies the on-going transition to urbanization. There is an element of enigma that is integrally associated with the plot and you definitely have to contemplate deeply to grasp the subtle symbolism, imagery and the profundity of the thought that Murakami has incorporated with great finesse.

Just dumping all the junk I can find here.