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The Model Short Story

On "The Elephant Vanishes" by Haruki Murakami

Photo of Lily Tuck

Lily Tuck

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Italo Calvino once wrote that he wanted to edit a collection of stories that consisted of one sentence and, as an extraordinary example, he cites the one-line story written by the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso: “Cuando despertó, el dinosaur todavía estaba allí” (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there). Extraordinary indeed! That single sentence expresses the process of writing fiction—making the imagined real.

Haruki Murakami has written such a story (in fact, he has written many, but this is my favorite). In “The Elephant Vanishes,” the narrator is reading the newspaper when a large headline catches his eye: “ELEPHANT MISSING IN TOKYO SUBURBS.” According to the article, the elephant and his keeper’s absence was first noticed at two o’clock in the afternoon of May 18; prior to that, nothing unusual about their behavior had been detected. The tone of the narrator is measured, matter-of-fact, and, at the outset, he establishes that he is a reliable, scrupulous person: “I am one of those people who read the paper from beginning to end, in order…” Then he goes on to describe the provenance of the old elephant—a reject from a defunct zoo—and the conditions set for taking the elephant by the town council and the mayor, listing all the pros and cons: who will pay for the upkeep of the elephant? where will the elephant be housed? etc. before concluding that the town will take charge of the animal and declare him the town symbol.  Again, all this is reported in a clear and dispassionate tone, a technique Murakami uses to highlight the disparity between the way the event is reported and the event itself.

After the elephant and his keeper are discovered missing, the town is in an uproar, people are frightened, the police are mobilized, a huge search lasting several days is conducted to no avail. Many more questions are asked: How did the old elephant manage to slip out of the locked steel cuff around his leg? How did the old elephant manage to clear the ten-foot-high fence around his enclosure? And how was it that not a single track was found outside the enclosure? In other words—how can such a large animal simply vanish?

Previously, on the hillside overlooking the elephant house, the narrator, on his walks, accidently discovers a spot from where, after hours, he can observe the elephant and his keeper through a large vent opening in the roof of the elephant house.  He cannot explain why but likes to watch the wordless way the keeper and the elephant communicate and understand each other —the tender way the keeper takes care of the old elephant. The affection they have for each other is evident.  As luck would have it, the narrator also happens to be there on the evening of May 17, at 7 p.m. the night before the elephant’s disappearance is discovered—again the time and place are reported very precisely—but, on this occasion, he is disconcerted to see that something is different,  something he cannot quite explain that has to do with the balance of size between the elephant and his keeper. The difference between them appears to have shrunk. Or so, he tries to explain, later, to a young woman he has just met with whom he is having a drink and who he likes. His description of the experience falls flat, the young woman does not understand— nor does he, really—but it is enough to create an irremediable awkwardness between them and to put an end to the budding romance and to their seeing each other again.

For the narrator some kind of balance has broken down as well and he is changed: “I felt like this a lot after my experience with the vanishing elephant. I would begin to think I wanted to do something, but then I would become incapable of distinguishing between the probable results of doing it and of not doing it. I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance…” Something important has been lost but the narrator is incapable of articulating the experience. No explanation is given and there is no resolution. The vanished elephant remains a mystery at the same time that the narrator’s life is changed forever.

Haruki Murakami’s stories are difficult to describe and one should, I think, resist attempts to overanalyze them. Their beauty lies in their ephemeral and incantatory qualities and in Murakami’s uncanny ability to tap into a surreal collective unconscious. In the introduction to a story collection, Murakami writes how writing a novel is a challenge and how writing short stories is a joy. “The Elephant Vanishes” is indeed a joy.

About the Author

Lily Tuck

Lily Tuck is the author of five novels, including Siam, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist; The News from Paraguay, winner of the 2004 National Book Award; and I Married You for Happiness, Book of the Year for the Chicago TribuneBoston GlobePublishers Weekly, and the National Post; two collections of stories; and a biography. Her work has been translated in over a dozen languages and has appeared in The Best American Essays and The O. Henry Prize Stories.