2022-10-23 ☼ teaching ☼ literature ☼ blog
A wife hears the story of a supernatural proclamation, and propels her passive husband into action. Violence ensues.
This is Macbeth. This is also “The Second Bakery Attack”, a story Haruki Murakami story originally wrote in 1986 (translated by Jay Rubin in the 1993 English-language collection The Elephant Vanishes). Sitting in their flat, overwhelmed by hunger, the narrator tells his wife about the time he and his best friend attacked a bakery ten years ago, and how their attempts at a robbery were thwarted by a baker who offered them a deal: free bread, if they agreed to listen to a Wagner record with him. Now, he says, he regrets the exchange — it feels like he has been living under a curse ever since. His wife suggests a simple solution: they must head out into the Tokyo night, shotgun in hand, and find an all-night bakery to rob.
I taught both these texts to my grade 10 class last year. As we approached the end of the semester, I invited them to pick two texts we had studied, and attempt to identify productive connections between them. I chose these two to use as an example because it seemed like an unlikely pairing, a combination few students would choose. But once I got going, I managed to convince myself that “The Second Bakery Attack” really is in conversation with the Shakespearean tragedy.
Not so much because of the assertive wife applying pressure to her husband, which is more a reflection of the strength Lady Macbeth exerts as a cultural archetype, looming out of the shadows any time a woman — actual or fictional — displays ambition. No, the crucial connection is a different couple: the man and woman asleep at a table, who remain stubbornly oblivious to the robbery unfolding around them:
I wrapped the gun in the blanket, she picked up the shopping bags, and out we went. The customers at the table were still asleep, like a couple of deep-sea fish. What would it have taken to rouse them from a sleep so deep?
Why are they there? Their presence is peripheral, but it feels important, even if it is hard to explain why. This kind of significance — felt before it is understood — is the focus of Thomas De Quincey’s essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”. Immediately after Duncan’s murder, the night fugue is brought to an abrupt end by the knocking on the gate that awakens the castle from its state of somnolence — a moment, De Quincey suggests, that illustrates the capacity of literature to affect us from a place beyond the scope of our conscious, rational understanding. This is the moment when “the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live […] makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.”
In “The Second Bakery Attack”, as in many Murakami stories, the usual rules of reality are suspended. But there is no knocking in “The Second Bakery Attack”. The parenthesis remains unclosed; the dream extends beyond the conclusion of the story. The couple keeps sleeping. The resolution of the story makes sense only according to the dreamlike pseudo-logic: the robbery has been completed, the curse lifted, the hunger dispelled. The real-world aftermath — the police sirens and consequences — can occur only when the couple awake from their deep, unnatural sleep.