For many years now, rain has brought out in me a desire to hold my hand out, hoping as I did that the droplets of water would turn into a downpour of fish. Living as I did in a coastal district, there were just enough plausibilities – amidst scandalised cries of “abishtu!” at a TamBrahm wishing for such a thing – for it to seem as if my wish was just a little further away, separated only by a narrow veil of reality.
As Haruki Murakami’s new short story collection, Men Without Women begins to hit bookshelves around the world, I, like many others, expect to be consumed by the familiar yet strange space between dreams and reality. Thematic consistency has always been Murakami’s strong point, though some see in it a lack of diversity. I can, without having read his latest book, rely on him to bring out certain themes – Tortured love, loneliness, alienation and a journey in search of something, among others.
Coming across him, as many others did, in my late teens, I found myself burning through his books, from Dance Dance Dance to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, luxuriating in being led through a search for a sense of belonging. And that, for an introverted teen puzzled by the machinations of daily life, provided a niche of comfort that was just detached enough from reality. Elements such as talking cats, golden beasts and a sky with two hanging moons acted as a counterbalance to the psychological realism of his themes.
If asked to describe Murakami, the word that first comes to mind isn’t “writer”, but “liar” – one of the best conmen I’ve encountered. Across every one of his works of fiction, he wove an illusion of a Japan that is jarringly disconnected from reality. A Japan conjured up from his own passion for the Western pop culture of the 60’s and 70’s – jazz playing in every bar, cafes filled with mysterious teens and adults dissecting the intricacies of 18th and 19th century literature, cab drivers with impeccable knowledge of film noir and sudden, surprising detours into the world of English rock’n’roll.
This connect to Western influences is obvious even in the title of his new book – a homage to Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 publication by the same name. It’s seen in the very nature of his writing, which is in many cases similar to Miles Davis’ advice on the construction of jazz music. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” he is famously quoted as saying. Murakami seems to have taken this advice to heart in the past, and is likely to do so again in Men Without Women – exploring the concept of lack through seven vignettes about men who find themselves alone and missing something, in various senses.
While the setting of Murakami’s stories are quite different, from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (part cyber-punk, part 1984), to Kafka on the Shore (a coming-of-age journey) or even Norwegian Wood (nostalgia warring with sexuality), the protagonists move in similar ways. Emotionless, passive, even weak-willed at times, these characters experience a constant struggle to come to terms with who they are, even as they wrestle with a solitude that stays with them regardless of who or what they encounter. This, in tangent with a very sterile style of narration, made it easy for readers to imagine themselves as the protagonists, appropriating their journeys in the process.
The stories in Men Without Women will most likely reach me in a well-worn vehicle, taking me to a familiar sensation of non-ending. But if, in Murakami’s words, “there is no such thing as perfect despair”, that leaves him with a million ways to explore loss and identity, and a million journeys for me to go on. So long as he doesn’t allow the familiarity of his themes to turn into sluggish complacency.
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