Very few can top the pleasure of watching a bakery comes to life as you are sitting by the glass window, with a mug of coffee, freshly ladled mushroom soup and books as company. Which reminds me of the following short story from the Elephant Vanishes compendium.
The Bakery Attack
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Michael Ward
At any rate, our stomachs were empty. No, in fact, we were starving. It was as if we had gulped down a vacuum in space. It began really small, a small vacuum like a hole in a doughnut, but as the day passed, the feeling inside our bodies increased until it finally reached the point of bottomless nothingness. The rumbling of our stomachs acted as solemn BGM for out monument to hunger.
How did this hunger arise? Of course it was because we lacked foodstuffs. How did we come to lack foodstuffs? It was because we did not possess units of monetary exchange. How did we come to not possess units of equivalent exchange? Perhaps it was because we lacked imagination. No, our hunger might have been directly caused by our lack of imagination.
It really does not make any difference.
God, Marx, and John Lennon all had died. At any rate, we were hungry and for this reason we were about to commit a crime. It was not because the hunger made us commit a crime, but it was the crime that made us run with hunger. I don’t understand it well, but it was existential.
“I’ll be bad,” said my friend in a few brief words and I seconded him.
We drank nothing but water for two days. One time I ate a sunflower leaf to see what it was like, but I don’t feel like trying to eat that again.
It is for this reason we took our kitchen knives to the bakery. The bakery was situated in the heart of the shopping district between a futon store and stationery shop. The old man who owned the bakery was over fifty, bald-headed, and a member of the communist party.
Clutching our knives, we slowly walked to the bakery in the environs of the shopping district. The feeling I had was similar to the movie High Noon. As we walked the fragrance of bread baking gradually became stronger. Indeed as the fragrance became stronger, the extent of our criminal inclination deepened. We were excited because we were attacking the bakery and the member of the Communist party simultaneously; I recalled at that moment the deep emotions of the Hitler-Jugend, or the Hitler Youth.
Because it was late in the afternoon, there was only one person inside the bakery. Indeed, there was a distasteful old woman holding a dirty shopping bag in her hand. There was a foul odor surrounding the woman. The criminal’s plans are always obstructed due to inelegant women such as this one. At least that is how it works in crime dramas. Using my eyes, I sent a message to my partner that we couldn’t do a thing until the woman departed, so I put the knife behind my back and we pretended to shop for bread.
The woman took an extraordinary amount of time making her selection as if she was prudently selecting a three-mirrored bureau instead of placing fried and melon bread on her tray. However, this does not mean that she was going to buy them. Maybe it was nothing more than one aspect of her thesis on fried bread and melon bread, or something completely opposite, so maybe it was necessary for her to take a long time so she could adjust comfortably to the situation.
The melon bread was losing its position in the thesis. She shook her head in a way as if she though “Why did I select such a thing? First of all it is too sweet!”
After thinking about it a bit, she put the melon bread back in its place on the shelf and then she gently put two croissants on the tray.
A new thesis was born. Beginning with the overflow of spring sunlight spilling from between the clouds the iceberg loosened a bit.
“What the hell?” My buddy said in a low voice. “While we are at it lets kill that old bitch.”
“Hey stay put,” I said pushing him back to keep him in place.
The owner of the bakery paid no mind to this as he was absorbed in listening to the Wagner piece emanating from the radio cassette player. I did not understand very well if this was the correct action for a member of the Communist Party to listen to a Wagner piece.
The woman continued to stare hard at the croissants and the fried bread. She seemed baffled. “It is weird and unnatural! By no means should croissants and fried bread be placed side by side!” She must have felt that the two types of bread had different ideologies. The bread on top of the tray within the woman’s hands shook with a clattering noise similar to that of a broken refrigerator’s thermostat. Of course the bread was not really shaking, so, in the end, it shook with its clatter, clack, clack, only figuratively.
“I am going to kill her.” My buddy said. Due to the extreme hunger, Wagner, and the tension caused by the woman, the situation had become as delicate as the skin of a peach. I remained silent and shook my head.
The old woman, nonetheless, still loitered about with tray in hand as if in a Dostoyevsky-like hell. It was as if the fried bread had stood on a platform before the citizens of Rome and had given a speech that had moved them greatly. Such beautiful words, such magnificent rhetoric, and such a booming sonorous baritone stated the people as they clapped in unison. Next the croissant took the platform and gave a rambling speech concerning the traffic signals. It spoke thus: Cars that are going to turn left should go straight ahead when the traffic light turns green and after they are sure that there are no other cars present, turn left. The citizens of Rome did not understand the speech very well, but because it was a difficult story, they applauded it. Due to the fact that the applause for the croissant was larger than that of the fried bread, the latter was returned back to its place on the shelf. Upon the woman’s tray sat two croissants that were the image of simple perfection.
Satisfied, she exited the shop.
Now it was our turn.
“We are extremely hungry,” I said frankly to the owner with the kitchen knife still hidden behind my back. “However, we do not have a cent between us.”
“I see,” said the owner, nodding his head. Together we stared at a pair of fingernail clippers placed on top of the counter. They were a huge pair of nail clippers that had probably been used to cut the talons of a vulture. Perhaps they were made as some kind of a joke.
“If you are hungry, then you should eat some bread,” said the owner.
“But we don’t have any money.”
“I’ve already heard you say that,” the owner said in a bored manner. “You don’t have to pay for it. Just go ahead and eat all that you want to.”
Once again, I stared at the nail clippers. “Really? We were on the road to do something devious.”
“Therefore, we cannot receive goodwill from others.
“Yes.” “And that’s how it is.”
“I see,” the owner said once again, “Well then, let’s do this. I’ll let you eat as much bread as you like and then I’ll put a curse on you. Will that be alright?”
“Curse? What do you mean?”
“The curse is very unpredictable. It is not like a bus schedule.”
“Hey wait a minute! I don’t want to be cursed!” My partner interrupted. “I hate this! I’ll kill you right now!”
“Wait, wait,” the owner said. “I don’t want to be killed.”
“Well, I don’t want to be cursed,” said my partner in return.
“It is essential that we make some sort of exchange,” I said.
We said nothing more and we glared once again at the nail clippers.
“How about this,” the owner began. “Do you two like Wagner?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither,” said my partner.
“Well then, after you come to like Wagner, I’ll give you all the bread you can eat.”
It sounded totally like a story from the mouth of a missionary on the Dark Continent, but we were immediately drawn to it. It was at least preferential over getting cursed.
“I like it,” I said
“I like it, too” said my partner.
So we listened to Wagner as we stuffed our stomachs with bread.
The owner read the record’s jacket which said “Tristan and Isolde is a brilliant piece in the history of music. It became public in the 1859 and in order to understand the latter works of Wagner, this piece is indispensable.”
My partner and I were unable to comment because our mouths were full of bread so we were only able to mumble.
“The King of Cornwall’s son Tristan was sent to meet his uncle’s fiancée Princess Isolde, but on the ship’s return voyage he fell in love with Isolde. The piece opens with a lovely cello-oboe duet whose theme acts as the motif for the couple’s love.
After two hours both parties were satisfied and we parted ways.
“Tomorrow I am going to listen to Tannhauser,” said the owner.
As we walked back to our room, the nothingness that had been inside of us vanished without a trace and the power of our imaginations began to move as if rolling down a gentle slope.
(c) Haruki Murakami.