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The Kingdom that Failed

The Kingdom that Failed
By Murakami Haruki
Translated by Jay Rubin
The New Yorker (2020)
Illustration by Jordan Moss
Review by Azmina Sohail

Murakami Haruki’s style of writing often seems to leave the reader questioning what happens after the end of his stories. He makes us question his characters, their motives and what makes them truly happy and The Kingdom that Failed is no exception.

The flash fiction piece published in The New Yorker in 2020 opens against the backdrop of an abandoned castle. The nameless narrator walks through a stream washing his feet looking up at the tower of the building, its flag still flying lamenting the idea that it will be known as the ‘kingdom that failed’. The use of the word  “kingdom” here is interesting as it connotes something archaic; we imagine the narrator is thinking of a time long before his existence with the reign of a king or queen, a once booming population and thriving economy. We then witness a shift in time and are brought back to the present day with the remainder of the story.

We are next presented with the character of Q with whom the narrator had a friendship with during his college years. How they came to be friends however, was purely a coincidence. Q lived in an apartment next to his and after borrowing condiments eventually started spending time together along with their girlfriends. The narrator eventually moved out, thus ending their friendship together. Despite time passing, the narrator still values this friendship and even connotes a sense of envy at his friend. In his eyes Q is ‘a character without flaws’. He describes him as someone kind, wealthy, an athlete and whilst not displaying anything overly outstanding in academia, a good student. He was also talented in music listening to Bill Evans and Mozart, adored French writers Balzac and Maupassant with his ‘critiques always right on the mark’. Furthermore, whilst he was also popular with women, he maintained ‘one steady girlfriend’ throughout college. The narrator’s assessment of Q was essentially perfect.

Fast forward ten years and the narrator meets Q again by chance in an up-scale part of Tokyo at a luxury hotel. He is with a nameless but attractive woman poolside but doesn’t recognise the narrator who is currently contemplating whether to introduce himself or not. The narrator decides against it feeling that there wouldn’t be much in common to talk about after so much time passing. Instead he decides to listen to their conversation. He figures out that Q is now a TV director and is trying to inform the woman that she was being let go from the company due to one reason or another. Despite his efforts she wants to know how much Q has really tried in helping her stay. No matter what he says both the woman and the narrator feel a sense of insincerity from him. She storms off in anger not before throwing her drink at him. It is in this moment that Q and the narrator exchange words; it’s clear that Q does not recognise his former friend and despite the narrator making a joke doesn’t introduce himself either. They both acknowledge the situation and then Q leaves without recognising his friend at all.

Murakami ends the story with the narrator saying ‘to see a splendid kingdom fade away…is far sadder than seeing a second-rate republic collapse’. By definition a “kingdom” is ‘country, state or territory ruled by a king or queen’ whereas a republic is ‘a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives.’ Murakami is suggesting that seeing a kingdom fail means that there is a lot more to lose as there is a history of success but seeing republic fail isn’t as bad as there is no expectation to succeed. It’s possible that the narrator sees Q as a once ‘splendid kingdom’ and himself as the ‘republic’.

Like a lot of Murakami’s stories, he takes a microcosm of a moment that many people have experienced and fleshes it out in fiction. It is essentially a story of “what-if’s”: What would’ve happened if Q had recognised his friend in that moment? What would’ve happened if Q and the narrator had stayed friends for those ten years? Was Q really the “perfect” embodiment of a man or would the narrator have realised something else in those years? How would their lives have turned out if things had been different? What would’ve happened if the once splendid kingdom (possibly Q or their friendship) had not failed?