After Dark: Haruki Murakami

Japanese master of the surreal Haruki Murakami's new novel is more a novella – at 200 pages, it's much shorter than many of his more overtly complex works.

Its easy-going style initially intimates that After Dark is a light read. Far from it. It is, on the surface, a tale of one Tokyo night's events. But read a little deeper and it's clear that Murakami is pressing his readers to question what is and isn't real, how much we can ever understand what is "incompatible with nature", by juxtaposing other-worldly events with everyday, normal situations.

We meet Mari Asai at midnight. Her situation is not unusual: she is reading and drinking coffee in a late-night cafe in the city.

Her quiet is interrupted by a young musician, Takahashi, who recognises her as his friend, Eri's, sister, and the two fall into (on Mari's part somewhat reluctant and forced) conversation.

After Takahashi leaves, Mari is again interrupted, this time by a woman, Kaoru, manager of a love hotel. A Chinese prostitute has been assaulted and Kaoru has been told that Mari speaks fluent Chinese.

Meanwhile, Eri Asai is sleeping ... but she has been doing so for weeks. Showing only minute signs of life, she is, however, certainly living.

So begins a series of strange coincidences, meetings and crossings of paths. While these events unfold, Eri's unplugged TV set come mysteriously to life and images flicker on its screen.

Through After Dark's nocturnal milieu, Murakami explores the realm of darkness. Tokyo is a 24-hour city, but, he questions, what really goes on at night, and who are the people we don't usually see?

There's a keen sense of lawlessness, of the cover of darkness changing the norms of society; the violent incident that occurs will not

be pursued.

On a deeper level, however, this book is an exploration of the unknown, that which we don't really understand.

"Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can't fight it." Only when day begins again does the novel regain a sense of regularity.

The narrative structure is unusual; initially, it appears that by using "we", that the author is inviting his readers to join him in viewing a scene, and this certainly is effective, conveying a shared omniscient viewpoint.

However, at times it seems that this collective "we" refers, rather, to a group of mysterious, other-worldly, controlling beings, and the narrative takes on a more sinister feel, the bird's-eye view becomes hidden surveillance camera.

Outside realms that may be as real as humanity are suggested by Eri's transportation to the other side of her TV screen and two occurrences of reflections being left in mirrors.

Indeed, such strange occurrences are regular in Murakami's work, wherein people are known to vanish down wells and "abysses ... swallow people".

It is the realness of Murakami's characters, despite the odd things that happen to them, that make such bizarre occurrences seem possible.

His characters' situations are also realistic. After Dark features restaurants, bars, a love hotel, offices. There's no forced suspension of disbelief.

While the lack of explanation for the surreal events of this night might be frustrating to some ("Clearly", he writes, "something here is incompatible with nature. This is all we can conclude for now ...") what Murakami is enabling his readers to do is make their own decisions as to whether this night's events are illusion, dream or reality.

Just as there are parts of our subconscious that we don't fully understand, this book encourages us not to shy away from darkness in favour of light.

After Dark: Haruki Murakami, Harvill, 14.99