"Ten Little Indians"
By Sherman Alexie
Grove Press. New York. 2003
$24.00 243 pages.
"After the Quake"
By Haruki Murakami
Translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin
Vintage Books. New York. 2003
$11.00 147 pages.
In "After the Quake," Haruki Murakami, one of Japan's most prominent figures in contemporary literature, examines the effects of the devastating earthquake that shook Kobe in 1996--not on the people of Kobe, but on the residents of outlying cities.
Given Japans' location on the Pacific Rim of Fire and at the nexus of three tectonic plates, earthquakes must figure significantly in the cultural milieu. This collection of six tales is an examination of geographic phenomenon on human consciousness.
Looking at a seismogram, an earthquake spreads from the epicenter, like ripples in a pond, weakening before dissolution. Murakami traces this ripple effect in emotional tension as it works itself across the landscape his characters inhabit. The bystanders are reminded of their own mortality, and their underlying conflicts are strained beneath the everyday facade like currents of magma beneath tectonic plates.
In "landscape with flatiron", the nearly hermetic artist Mr. Miyake describes his reoccurring dream to his young friend Junko--and epitomizes the internal struggle of Murakami's characters:
I'm in this tight space, in total darkness, and I die little by little. It might not be so bad if I could just suffocate. But it doesn't work that way. A tiny bit of air manages to get in through some crack, so it takes a really long time. I scream but nobody can hear me. And nobody notices I'm missing. It's so cramped in there, I can't move. I squirm and squirm in there but the door won't open.
While the shock of the quake agitates the fear of entrapment and suffocation, the stories always shy away from resolution. They almost blush.
In "all god's children can dance", Yoshiya, a disaffected youth who was raised to believe he was the product of immaculate conception, follows the man he suspects is his biological father to an abandoned baseball field, but balks at the confrontation:
What was I hoping to gain from this? he asked himself as he strode ahead. Was I trying to confirm the ties that make it possible for me to exist here and now? Was I hoping to be woven into some new plot, to be given some new and better-defined role to play? No, he thought, that's not it. What I was chasing in circles must have been the tail of the darkness inside me. I just happened to catch sight of it, and followed it, and in the end let it fly into still deeper darkness. I'm sure you'll never see it again.
Abandoning his pursuit, reminisces in the moonlight and dances around the pitchers mound:
How long he went on dancing, Yoshiya could not tell. But it was long enough for him to perspire under the arms. And then it struck him what lay buried far down under the earth on which his feet were so firmly planted: the ominous rumbling of the deepest darkness, secret rivers that transported desire, slimy creatures writhing, the lair of earthquakes ready to transform whole cities into mounds of rubble. These, too were helping to create the rhythm of the earth. He stopped dancing and, catching his breath, stared at the ground beneath his feet as though peering into a bottomless hole.
But the earth hasn't moved beneath any of the characters feet; like ripples in the pond, the tension rises but the surface never breaks, and the ripple passes on.
Only in the final story, "honey pie", the last ripple, do we find a dissolution of the emotional tension. The awkward, introverted writer, Junpei, is finally motivated by the quake and his confrontation with morality, to admit his love to a dear friend after decades of silence.
As soon as Sayoko woke in the morning, he would ask her to marry him. He was sure now. He couldn't waste another minute. Taking care not to make a sound, he opened the bedroom door and looked at Sayoko and Sala sleeping bundled in a comforter... I want to write stories that are different from the ones I've written so far, Junpei thought: I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love. But right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl. I will never let anyone--not anyone--try to put them in that crazy box--not even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar.
Sherman Alexie, four time World Heavyweight Championship Poet and author of "Reservation Blues" and "Indian Killer" grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.
For his collection of short stories, Ten Little Indians, Alexie selects a cross section Spokane Indians who are living off of the reservation--from an ambitious young politician to a drunken derelict. The thing all of his characters share is the struggle to establish an identity as a member of the Spokane nation while emersed in the dominant cultural milieu with it's Western construct.
In "The Search Engine", Corliss, a hopeful college student tracks down a Spokane poet, Harlan, who was adopted by white parents and raised away from the reservation:
I started writing poems to feel like I belonged, he said. To feel more Indian. And I started imagining what it felt like to grow up on the reservation, to grow up like an Indian is supposed to grow up, you know?
Alexie goes on,
She knew. She wasn't supposed to be in college and she wasn't supposed to be as smart as she was and she wasn't supposed to read the books she read and she wasn't supposed to say the things that she said. She was too young and and too female and too Indian to be that smart. But I exist, she shouted to the world, and my very existence disproves what my conquerors believe about this world and me, but since my conqueror cannot be contradicted, I must not exist. Harlan, she said.I don't even know what Indian is supposed to be. How could you know?
The characters do not reject the Euro-American tradition outright. Instead, there is an integration--and how the Spokane and American culture articulate is different for each character. The grieving Frank Snake Church transforms himself into a basketball star as an act of ritual offering:
"I'm playing to remember my mom and dad," Frank said.
Preacher laughed so hard he sat on the court.
"What's so funny?" Frank asked. He dropped the ball and let it roll away.
"Well, I just took myself a poll," Preacher said. "And I asked one thousand mothers and fathers how they would feel about a forty-year-old son who quit his high-paying job to pursue a full-time career as a playground basketball player in Seattle, Washington, and all one thousand of them mothers and fathers cried in shame."
"Preacher," Frank said, "it's true. I'm not kidding. This is, like, a mission or something. My mom and dad are dead. I'm playing to honor them. It's an Indian thing."
Alexie's characters, though engaging, seem sort of obtuse when compared with those depicted by Murakami. Each portrait of Alexie's characters is accompanied by a dossier of his or her (inevitably liberal) politics. Murakami's characters transcend politics to deal with nature's influence on human nature; his work is seamless. This difference however may be the result of their respective positions within their cultures--Murakami is not confronted with the plurality of identities with which Alexie contends.