“Samsa in Love” (short story) by Haruki Murakmai
English Publication History: The New Yorker (October 28, 2013); Men Without Women (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017); Desire (Vintage, 2017)
Original: Japanese (恋するザムザ), 2013
Translated by Ted Goossen, 2013
Required Reading: If you haven’t read Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915/1947), please, please, please, not only because it sets a scene of contrast for “Samsa in Love”, but also because it predates and lays the foundation for the Magical Realism movement; in addition, it’s also incredibly yet morbidly beautiful to read Kafka’s lonesomeness and pain while being ensconced in pages-long paragraphs. Kafka’s verbose style, however, is not copied to Murakami’s short story. My own plot summary of “The Metamorphosis” follows:
Gregor Samsa supports his parents and untalented sister with his mediocre job which he loathes, but he gets along grudgingly until one morning when he wakes to find himself abruptly transformed in an insectoid figure, hideous and loathsome. His family quarantine him to his room and feed him orts and leftovers, a duty his sister fulfills aside from supplanting income lost, as do the parents, by finding their own jobs; but it’s Grete who takes to French, shorthand, and the violin. Soon, Gregor sees himself supplanted. (SF Potpurri, 2013)
Synopsis: Where an insectoid body replaced that of Gregor’s own, the being that waked upon the bed is now the insectoid personality imprisoned in Gregor’s body and Gregor’s room. He knows one thing, at least: fear birds. Alone, the Gregor now is just as unaccustomed to his human form as he was with the insectile limbs; in addition, while having the ability of speech, his vocabulary is limited as is his understanding of human culture: he scarfs good greedily without utensils, he walks through the house in nakedness, and can’t seem to walk erect on his own two legs. After observing humans outside donning cloth to hide their nakedness, Gregor mimics this with the simplest of forms: a dressing gown. He begins to understand that his grasp of the human state is very limited only when a humpbacked girl comes to repair a lock in the house. He’s easily able to hold a conversational tone but is flummoxed by words such as brassiere, hunchback, fuck, tanks, God, perverted, and pray. Innocence, though, shines through Gregor’s awkwardness as he learns little by little from the girl, who arouses him and intrigues him, the former repelling her, the latter compelling her.
Analysis: Many of Gregor’s mannerisms and reactions can be inferred by the reader, not because they are familiar with Gregor as an insect, but because they are familiar with Gregor as a human. Having the back story to Gregor, however, adds a firmer foundation to understanding him. In contrast, what has no foundation is behind the story, which is a world that isn’t such a placid place as it once had been: foreign tanks are on the streets and checkpoints are in place, which seems to infer German occupation of Prague. Why this is is not given any more detail in the story.
At the center of “The Metamorphosis” is Gregor’s downward spiral from bread-winning, family-oriented, and hard-working man–truly salt of the earth and innocent in his dedication–to that of an upward spiral in rediscovering his humanity, albeit in a rather awkward form. His patience and innocence intrigue the girl who would otherwise be an outcast, and it’s her reciprocal interest that can foster Gregor’s recovery. If there is a take-home message from the girl’s interaction with Gregor, it’s the following:
Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it. . . . But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart. (75)
Review: Literature-wise, the story is an interesting counter-piece to Kafka’s work. I would have liked to see Kafka’s verbose style imposed on the story, but that’s superficial; however, the meat of the story isn’t just a sequel: it’s redemption for Samsa, a chance to grow as a human from which he had been deprived after being inflicted with the plight as life as an insect. It’s not often the reader gets to experience the re-building of a destroyed man in only 29 pages; granted, this is because of Murakami’s continuation of Kafka’s Samsa, but the short means has a long, satisfying result.