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Cover of 'after the quake' A few pages into this slim book of short stories by Japanese writer Murakami, I was uneasy. It was Murakami’s style that was puzzling–it was just too easy to read. Verging on boring. Very simple sentences, very little dialogue, none of the visual detailing that can draw me into a book. This was a realistic telling of a fairly ordinary story. Almost a sketchy treatment for a screenplay. I wasn’t sure I was going to have anything to say about it–all I could see in front of me was a blank.

I read on.

As I went on through the extreme simplicity of Murakami’s writing, I began to see what I couldn’t before. In this book, his is a style that is stripped down completely, made bare, with starkly contoured outlines suddenly visible. Like a line drawing, a very basic line drawing. It was simply a language so restrained, so minimal that it was conserving everything, telling more in what it wasn’t telling, in its silence than in its words. You have to read very slowly, taking in the slightness of each sentence, understanding it and then moving on, to actually grasp at the almost untellable emotional weight they convey; there is much more in suggestion than in description. There are no short-cuts to reading and comprehending these stories.

And they are a curious set of stories, all hearkening back to the quake of the title (the Kobe earthquake) in some way or another, though without their characters being directly affected by that event. A man whose wife has just left him ferries a mysterious parcel to another city. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl spend time with each other lighting bonfires on the beach. A young man who has been constantly told that he is the Son of God follows a stranger who he thinks might be his father. A woman bitter after a divorce takes a vacation in Thailand and comes to a recognition of her mortality. A collection agent is visited at night by a giant frog who insists that the two of them together have to go into battle to save the city of Tokyo from an earthquake. And the last story traces the topography of a novelist’s long-term friendship with a married couple and their baby, and how they are his family.

If I were to liken this sequence of storytelling to anything, it would be to a piece of music. The first four stories make up one part for me, each of them dealing, in some way, with the aloneness of the human being, and all written realistically. They are abrupt, almost interludes in the lives of their characters, and allow for one or two scenes in which the action takes place in an unfolded present. The background is told quickly, years of the past condensed into a line or paragraph. The characters are separate from each other, vast spaces between them. In these stories’ sudden ceasing, their ambiguity at the end, they are unnerving, very disquieting.

The fifth story, with the surreal element of the giant frog, manifests a drastic shift. Now, suddenly, superimposed on the style of the first four stories, there is this creature out of a nightmare, something leaning out of the subconscious mind and imposing itself on the story’s reality. It seems to jar, odd for the sake of oddness, and nothing really comes of it in any sense that can be easily understood or related in terms of human relationships, though it can be said to achieve a sort of dream-like closure for its protagonist.

And then, there is the final story, ‘honey pie’, perhaps the only one that can be called beautiful, the only one that carries in that strongest of emotions, love, and its sometimes-corollary, loyalty. ‘honey pie’ follows three friends, two men and a woman, through university and youth, through the marriage of two of them and the birth of a child, and then through a divorce. Junpei, one of the two men, finds himself on the verge of erotic fulfillment with Sayoko, the woman, who is no longer with Takatsuki, the father of her child and Junpei’s friend since university. But at this climactic moment, the sexual impulse sublimates into another kind of love–that for a family, a tight unit to cleave to and to protect. And yet, it is a story that ends with Junpei as another human being alone–only he is a human being courageous enough and strong enough to be both alone and one with those he loves.

As I read that last story, I could not help but feel that I had finally read a story that was complete. Not neat, or tidy, or stilted, or overly-symmetrical, but complete. That is what Murakami achieves as he closes out the sequence of intensity, of intense humanity, that is after the quake. He wrote this, I gather, after the Kobe earthquake as part of an effort to consider the reality of Japanese society more deeply. Whether it speaks to the Japanese I do not know;  nor whether it speaks to most readers; but it  has the capacity to speak to that place inside each of us that makes us fundamentally, individually, bravely human.

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Nicaraguan stamp showing Maigret lighting his pipe
Inspector Maigret lighting his pipe on a Nicaraguan stamp, one of a series depicting famous fictional detectives; others in the series included Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, and Father Brown.

Considering my fondness for detective novels, I am mildly ashamed to say that I’ve never given Simenon and his creation, Maigret, as much time as they probably deserve. In part because, even though there are dozens of books featuring Maigret, they’re not particularly easy to get hold of. And, in part, because I always found Simenon drier, less engaging than other detective novelists I enjoy.

Maigret’s Pipe is a selection of 17 short stories; I picked it up in Bombay, out of the towering stacks at the dusty, musty New and Secondhand Bookshop, sometime last October. It got read in stages; some in October, some in December, the rest this February. Perhaps a good way to read Simenon’s short stories, spreading them out a bit.

I had some problems getting into the swing of reading, once again; this time, I know it was because of the way the dialogue was punctuated. Too many ellipses and exclamation marks can really cause problems–the ellipses gave me a curious sense of the characters talking to themselves, not each other, disengaged from what was happening around them. And then the exclamation marks made it all seem too staccato. Which is not to say the stories were not engrossing–they were, for reasons I discuss below. But they weren’t the easiest of reads, for all that Simenon was and still is a “popular writer.”

But, in the course of reading these stories, I began to understand that Maigret has never entirely appealed because I am wary of him. He is brusque and free from pretensions to politeness, patient only in that he will hold out long enough to get information out of a suspect–as befits a character in a series of institutional interactions presented fitfully, so jerkily, as those exclamation marks seem to underline. As such, I don’t think I’d ever want to be interrogated by him; he’s not above anything, locking himself up in a room with a young girl for hours in one of these stories, and keeping a set of suspects in the room with the corpse of a murdered man in another, even when they complain of the smell. Gentility is not for the police, not in Maigret’s world.You’d want to make sure you’d be found innocent as soon as possible.

As for the suspects–unlike those in many detective novels, they never really gain the sympathy of Maigret or get admitted into his confidence. They are the focus of his attention, until they are proved innocent, after which they are tossed out onto the rubbish heap composed of those the police are not interested in at all. They are not his friends. They won’t be. It’s not wonder they talk hesitatingly, as if they talk to themselves, almost as if they can’t meet the eyes of this embodiment of impartial justice. What a contrast to Wimsey and Harriet Vine, or Holmes and Irene Adler, or Inspector Morse and a series of women, or Albert Campion and his friends in the criminal world. And you don’t even have the comfort of emotional insight into Maigret, as you do with Adam Dalgliesh, to make him seem more approachable.

So these aren’t cosy stories. You read them not for precision of plotting and puzzle, either, but for a black-and-white, realist, strictly unbiased treatment of the solid structure of the detective story–crime, investigation, solution. But in his bare-bones, quick, but startlingly vivid sketches of characters and place and social situation and dynamics, Simenon presents us with a finely realised world, one of modernity and alienation and cynicism. There are few comforts–his people are mostly working class, or middle class, ordinary, and even if they have outstanding intelligence or beauty or wealth, they are never permitted to be more than people in the crowd of suspects. They are always real, sometimes sordid in their deeds and ways–the story The Three Daughters of the Lawyer stays with me for its slow stripping away of bourgeois value of various sorts, to expose something ultimately wretched and miserable. And Simenon’s one interest is not to pass judgement on his characters, but rather to let Maigret discover the thread of action and speech and behaviour that has led to a crime and away from it to its perpetrator. Varied are these threads in their patterns and their paths, ingenious yet perfectly believable and real in these stories.

Maigret’s investigations rely on intuition and on his close observation and interpretation of what people do and say and how they live. Nothing within his powers is permitted to distract him from his goal; he is steadfastly, unshakably objective in his search. There are no redemptions here, no happy endings, no allowance for human relationships to form out of this crucial seeking for the truth of how one human being has done injustice to another. There is only the struggle to work the mills of justice. Reading these stories, I remain wary of the uncompromising Inspector Maigret, but there is no doubt about it–I respect him most deeply.

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