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"Landscape with Flatiron" from After the Quake
That Bewitched and Enchanted Space Between Imagination and Intellect
Presenting ideas through language is something individual writers conjure first in that bewitched and enchanted space between imagination and intellect. The result is a sentence, paragraph or story that becomes a roadmap for leading readers to revelations regarding partially developed thoughts or fully blooming memories churning within.
Haruki Murakami’s short story “Landscape with Flatiron” opened a memory inside of me, an orange and glowing memory of fire builders and bonfires crackling on humid nights in the Field of Dreams on the big island of Hawai’i.
If you search for the Field of Dreams on Google maps, you won’t find it in the middle of the Pacific. It’s a place within a place on an island in a chain of islands.
The Field of Dreams is an open field at the Kalani Oceanside Retreat where volunteers go to talk, relax and gaze into crackling bonfires that have been slowly and precisely built and tended by the men of the landscaping and maintenance departments, burly men with strapping chests and sun-kissed skin. In the sky, the stars perform their nightly dance on twinkling toes as the human beings below spin and twirl to the night’s tropical beat.
In “Landscape with Flatiron,” Murakami explores the social significance of community bonfires, places where people have gathered for centuries to feel the comfort of knowing they were part of something bigger than just themselves. Junko, a young woman in the story, describes standing in front of the fire like this:
“The spread of the flames was soft and gentle, like an expert caress, with nothing rough or hurried about it- their only purpose was to warm people’s hearts. Junko never said much in the presence of the fire. She hardly moved. The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.”
At the same time, Murakami interprets the meaning of fire for human survival when the character, Junko, recalls reading the short story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.
“As usual, Junko thought about Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” It was the story of a man traveling alone through the snowy Alaskan interior and his attempts to light a fire. He would freeze to death unless he could make it catch. The sun was going down. Junko hadn’t read much fiction, but that one short story she had read again and again, ever since her teacher had assigned it as an essay topic during the summer vacation of her first year of high school. The scene of the story would always come vividly to mind as she read. She could feel the man’s fear and hope and despair as if they were her own; she could sense the very pounding of his heart as he hovered on the brink of death. Most important of all, though, was the fact that the man was fundamentally longing for death. She knew that for sure. She couldn’t explain how she knew, but she knew it from the start. Death was really what he wanted. He knew that it was the right ending for him. And yet he had to go on fighting with all his might. He had to fight against an overwhelming adversary in order to survive. What most shocked Junko was this deep-rooted contradiction.”
As we all know, human beings are large, walking, talking bundles of contradictory energy, but when we come together around a well-tended fire on a warm island night, the beauty of community nourishes the spirit. The thought of death stands apart momentarily alone and tongue-tied when we humans celebrate our powerful connections to family.
end note: [I am sure a woman could have accepted the job of fire starter smoothly and without a hitch, but during my time at Kalani from December through early March 2009, the celebration of masculinity bubbled forth in front of the inferno.]