I started reading Kafka on the Shore last week for the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 and I’m enjoying it very much. I’m taking it slowly as I want to savour and think about it as I go along. Also, there is a character in the novel with the same name as mine! Yay, bonus! While I was at my sister’s this weekend, I caught sight of After Dark on her bookshelf, and as it was quite a slim volume, I took it down and couldn’t resist taking a peek. I normally go to sleep with a couple of books by my pillow (kind of like a security blanket – I always feel safe when I’m surrounded by books) and before I knew it, I had started reading it. And I finished it the following morning. I did say it was a slim volume.

After Dark isn’t as whimsical as some of Murakami’s other novels. If I had to compare it, it is more in the vein of Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun rather than A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance. The novel follows one night in the life of Mari Asai, a nineteen year old university student studying Chinese and running away from her cracked home life. She has a beautiful older sister Eri who is deep in a coma-like sleep watched over by a mysterious man. Mari has missed her last train home and is killing time reading a book in a family restaurant. There, she encounters Takahashi, a one-time classmate of her sister’s. He is on his way to an all night band practice. From there, events take a strange turn as Takahashi’s friend Kaoru, a former pro-wrestler and now manager of a love hotel asks for her help. She has a beaten up Chinese prostitute crying in the love hotel and needs Mari’s interpreting skills. Mari is drawn into the shadowy underbelly of Japanese nightlife as she meets characters who do not normally exist in her conventional suburban life.

Nothing much happens as this novel only covers about seven hours or so in Mari’s life. But we get a snapshot of the lonely hours between the last and first trains that leave Tokyo into the suburbs. The 24 hour family restaurants, convenience stores and love hotels as well as the night shift of IT workers all make an appearance when most ordinary folk are fast asleep in their beds. In contrast, Mari’s sister Eri who is fast asleep at home is stuck in an uneasy place between life and death. We hear stories about the various displaced characters who are all running away from something in their lives. Like in all of his novels, there is a thread of alienation running through After Dark. And although Murakami doesn’t try and explain or give an answer to life’s problems, the novel left me not with a sad, depressed sense of futility, but a snapshot of modern life in Japan. It’s not a happy novel, but he leaves us with a small nugget of hope in the myriad problems faced by ordinary people.

A lot of focus has been given in the past few years to the dark, visceral nature of Japan and the East, not mainly due to the violence and sex prevalent in films, novels and manga that is increasingly available in the West. Like in any country, there is a light and dark side to Japan. I feel it mistaken to think that you can define a country just by a selection of artistic work. Having lived in Japan, I feel that the traditional and modern, culture and vice all complement each other and build a fuller picture of such a complex nation.

After Dark isn’t my favourite Murakami novel, but I liked it. There isn’t a definitive conclusion to the story, but you come away from reading it with a little more understanding of Japanese society.