Today I read from one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, who is renowned for his blurring of dream and reality.
“The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami
I took another look at my undersea volcano. The water was clearer than before–much clearer. Unless you looked closely, you might not even notice it was there. It felt as though the boat were floating in midair, with absolutely nothing to support it. I could see every little pebble on the bottom. All I had to do was reach out and touch them.
“We’ve only been living together for two weeks,” she said, “but all this time I’ve been feeling some kind of weird presence.” She looked directly into my eyes and brought her hands together on the tabletop, her fingers interlocking. “Of course, I didn’t know it was a curse until now. This explains everything. You’re under a curse.”
The narrator has been married to and living with his wife in Tokyo for only two weeks when it happens: late one night, at two o’clock in the morning, both wake simultaneously, both stricken with tremendous pains of hunger.
They find themselves in the kitchen—the fridge, containing beer and dressing and butter and onions and deodorizer, is bare of anything practical to suit their purpose—and end up staring at one another across the table.
The husband suggests they get in the car and look for somewhere open all night. Nonsense, the wife replies—you’re not supposed to go out to eat after midnight.
But the hunger persists, and narrator is certain it is some special kind of hunger. Even dividing six cans of beer and four scavenged butter cookies amongst themselves, the hunger is devastating. The narrator has an image of himself in a boat on a vast sea and a great volcano beneath whose peak just protrudes from the water. The clearness of the water makes it seem as though his boat teeters on top of the volcano, giving him an acute sense of acrophobia; and when he connects that feeling to his hunger, he remembers the bakery attack.
The man tells his wife of a time ten years ago when he was so poor he couldn’t afford toothpaste. He was hungry then, too, he explains—and he and his friend attacked a bakery. His wife rebukes him, and when the husband attempts to waive the topic in favor of returning to bed she says she is not sleepy, and wants to hear about the attack.
“Was it a success?” she asks.
The husband relays what happened: he and his friend had gone in with knives. The baker, being a lover of classical music, made a deal with them: he would give them all the bread they could take if only they listened to a record of Wagner. The two would-be thieves agreed, sat down and listened to overtures to Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman, and walked out with enough bread in their bags to feed them for four or five days.
They got the bread, he concludes, but they didn’t commit a crime. What happened was more of an exchange: a business transaction. In a way, it was almost like a curse. It would have been better if they had taken the bread at knifepoint.
“You had a problem?”
The husband says it’s difficult to classify. He and his friend stopped hanging out, he says: they’d talked a while about Wagner and bread, and whether what they’d done was right (and certainly it was, for no one had been hurt), and yet both felt they had made some great mistake, and that feeling stayed with them. Like a curse.
His wife determines that he must still have that curse and that it will haunt him until he resolves it. Why else would she, his new best friend, feel this ungodly hunger along with him?
The starvation grows stronger; the water beneath his boat is so crystal he can see the little rocks at the bottom. The wife says she has felt a strange presence among them ever since they moved in together. Now she knows it’s the curse. And the only way to resolve the matter, she says, is to attack another bakery. Now.
“Yes. Now. While you’re still hungry.”
They get in the car and start looking for another bakery. With them are two black ski masks and an automatic shotgun. They drive and drive through all districts of Tokyo but find no late night bakeries. They do pass a couple patrol cars, though. And then, when the husband is just about ready to give up—
“Stop the car!”
The wife has set her sights. Not on a bakery: on a McDonald’s. The husband hesitates, but the wife insists: they’ll go in there, pull on the masks, brandish the gun and make all the employees and customers get together. She’ll take care of the rest. Thirty burgers should do it, right?
The execution is not grand: there are only two customers, both face down and asleep on the table. The husband produces the shot gun and commands the employees (three in total) together. The wife tells the manager to lower the front shutter and turn off the sign. He protests, saying that he’ll be held responsible if he closes up early, but at the husband’s insistence he does.
The wife orders thirty Big Macs to go. The manager, again protesting that this will mess with his accounting and it would be easier for him to give them the money, is persuaded only by the husband’s insistence.
The three employees—manager, student, and girl—go back into the kitchen and begin preparing the order. Still very hungry, the husband eyes the growing pile of wrapped burgers with appetite but restrains himself; never moves his sights, nor indeed the gun, away from the employees.
As the wife is bagging the whole order into two bags, the girl employee asks why they are doing this. The wife apologizes. If there had been a bakery open, she said, they would have attacked them instead. Her explanation seems to satisfy. Then, adding to the oddity, the wife adds two Cokes to the order and pays for them.
“We’re stealing bread, nothing else,” she explains.
Then she ties them up with a bit of twine in their pocket, only after assuring the cord doesn’t hurt and nobody wants to use the restroom.
They depart, and drive to a vacant parking lot to feast upon their prize. Ten burgers devoured by the time the sun comes up, the husband asks again if what they’ve just done was really necessary.
“Of course!” his wife replies.
Now, looking over the edge of his imagined boat, the husband sees that the volcano is gone. The sea is no longer transparent, either, but reflects the sky above.
He draws back in, closes his eyes, and waits for the tide to carry him.
Favorite line/passage (See earned last sentence.)
“Stretched out on the backseat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun. Its shells rustled dryly in the pocket of my wife’s windbreaker. We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn’t explain and I didn’t ask. Married life is weird, I felt.”
As in “The Happy Man”, the narration in this story vacillates between the present action and a sort of internal world. In “The Happy Man,” it’s Tom’s experiences in Hell; in “The Second Bakery Attack,” it’s the narrator’s subconscious image, which he himself cannot explain. The content of these internal worlds is very different, but the approach the way the play into the story is similar: one of interlacing structure. This is something I’ll bear in mind when I’m trying to introduce a dreamlike element, or introduce a speculative culture, or even, perhaps, compose a story within a story. I find great potential in this technique.
Thoughts on Murakami: he has this magical way of making the ordinary extraordinary. He works with places (Tokyo) and circumstances (married life, having nothing in the fridge, etc.) that are very real, and adds just the right details (waking up at 2:00 AM, exactly in sync with your significant other, with unworldly hunger; the first bakery attack; the man who made them listen to Wagner; his wife’s take on the tale as “a curse”) and slightly dream-like images (the boat, sea, and volcano) to tweak that reality into something absurd and compelling. I stand in awe.
conjugal: relating to marriage or the relationship between husband and wife
expedient: (as a noun) a means of attaining an end, especially one that is easy but considered improper or immoral
notwithstanding: in spite of/nevertheless
hermetic: (of a seal) airtight
plexus: a network of nerves or vessels in the body; an intricate/weblike network