The Reality of the Impossible in Murakami’s ‘The Wind Cave’
by Martina Hysi
John Tenniel, from 'The Nursery Alice', 1890 (wikimedia commons)
I have often considered that the things we find terrifying as adults make for the adventure of a child’s lifetime. This may be because children live and breathe the arbitrary world of fairytales, which explores the opportunity of impossible things in the simplest, frankest way. Whatever to us is inconceivable is, to them, entirely real, tangible, and important. The blurring between the material and immaterial is one of the topics explored in ‘The Wind Cave’ by Haruki Murakami, an excerpt from his upcoming novel ‘Killing Commendatore’. It develops as an exploration of the aftermath of death, its subtler effects on the psyche, and how human it is to find it impossible to accept it. It is a well-told story, and while I did not find myself too engaged on an emotional level, it is a piece that retains many elements worth discussing.
Death is not an unexplored topic in literature, and it is an event, a phenomenon that colours narratives in an unmistakable, decisive way. I cannot say I have read much from Murakami (except for a botched attempt at ‘Norwegian Wood’, which I shamefully admit having abandoned halfway), but he writes in a style which quickly becomes a predominant feature of the text. His writing is blunt, textual, matter-of-fact – a bold technique that purveys an extremely rich content, full of nuance and meaning.
The formulaic steps of grief the narrator takes in the first half of the story are common and straightforward, yet beautifully and fantastically placed against what comes next: an almost otherworldly tale of a cave within a cave that lures his sister in and steals something the narrator believes was fundamental. The ordinary nature of these pre- and post-mortem rituals, faithfully conducted and felt by all those facing a sudden death, makes for an ideal developing ground for a story that moves backward. Using the advantages of an overturned chronology, it places the two characters perfectly within their frames – the archetypal Hansel, returned from his journey without his Gretel.
Moving from one classical formula to the next, a boy and a girl head into a dark cave leaving behind their adult protector. In this cave, for a moment, one of the two seems to be lost forever, exposing a truth that, for her, has always loomed half-way between inevitable and potentially escapable. The very same truth that her brother is neither capable of understanding nor accepting, as his future self clearly outlines for us to examine: ‘I think I was trying to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t think about my dead sister’.
The arbitrary world of fairytales, of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, which his sister insists ‘really existed’, a world ‘just for her’, is a reality the narrator’s younger self resists until her death. This transformation in the narrator leaves him an adult who believes in the existence of a concurrent realm, but this is not a source of joy, or excitement. To his sister, this was an exclusive haven where she could exist separate from her body with ease and willingness, where ‘even if, say, my body completely disappeared, I’d still be there. Like the Cheshire Cat’s grin staying on after he vanished’. Yet, to him, that is the place from where death crawled out ‘to grab hold of my sister’s soul’. One can even argue that, perhaps, in a streak of magical clairvoyance, Komi has seen her end coming, maybe even before the episode of the cave happened. Perhaps, the narrator is aware of this too, and this is the idea he refuses to understand, an idea his anxiety shapes into an intimate fear of enclosed, dark spaces.
Often, when something unthinkable occurs, we can not even imagine that it could have any meaning at all. The pain comes with such blinding power, that we find ourselves paralyzed by how grotesquely incomplete everything feels. Such is the effect of the death of one that we love. Another short story I have read recently, called ‘Chicxulub’, explores how the odds of something as cataclysmic as a meteor strike, or the death of a loved one, lie perfectly within the realm of the possible. Then, how is it that we do not find it in us to face such a reality on our way to work, at birthday parties, waiting in line at the airport? Perhaps because confronting such realities can trigger in us what Komi’s death has triggered in her brother. Perhaps because while entirely possible, these events remain fantastic, if only because they are too tragic to bear. Perhaps, it is because fairytales belong to children, and to those who are not afraid of them.