Title: Men Without Women
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publishers: Harvill Secker/Penguin Random House
“Loneliness seeps deep down inside your body, like a red-wine stain on a pastel carpet,” says the narrator of the titular story of Men Without Women. The men in c’s heart-rending new book of short stories are all stained — be it by loneliness, their deficiencies or the phantom pain from a wonderfully innocent first love. These indelible marks act as a common strand as the author plays through all seven stories, hitting blue notes aplenty along the way.
In the ever-changing world of Murakami’s writing, there are a few assurances — most characters will have musical tastes ranging from Schubert to The Beatles, solace is often found in bars and good food, cats are a shining ray of hope in a universe that rations it out grudgingly. The most important assurance, however, is that happiness and meaning will be hard to find and even harder to keep.
For many characters, the search that ensues is the driving force that pushes their fractured selves forward. Such a quest — be it literal as in The Wind Up Bird Chronicles (1997), or metaphorical, as with Kafka on the Shore (2005) — is often the only hint of proactivity in an otherwise bland, almost dispassionate, array of protagonists. The latest collection begins with Drive My Car — a reference to The Beatles and the story of Kafuku, a middle-aged actor and widower, whose wife had affairs throughout the span of their marriage. Tortured by the knowledge of the affairs, what Kafuku seeks more than anything else is to know why. Such a curiousity is, in Murakami’s world, a powerful, arbitrary force devoid of a place on any moral scale.
Perhaps, one of the biggest triumphs of the book is the ease with which Murakami indulges in tragicomedy, maneuvering between the two genres effortlessly. In The Independent Organ, the protagonist speaks of successful cosmetic surgeon Dr Tokai. A 52-year-old confirmed bachelor, Tokai is content to remain “the casual number-two lover, a convenient rainy-day boyfriend, a handy partner for a casual fling”. That is, until, he falls in love with a young, married woman, who eventually ends their affair, leaving the doctor to grapple desperately with a suffocating sense of loss for the very first time. The narrator mocks and empathises with Tokai in equal measure — this narrative tone prevaricates between dark and light in stories such as Kino or Yesterday as well.
While a Murakami short story can be seen as a condensed version of his much lengthier novels, earlier collections such as The Elephant Vanishes (1993) seem to wrestle with challenges in form, struggling not to sacrifice pace for form or flair for substance. Men Without Women comes across as a refined product of those attempts, pitch-perfect for the most part. This is not to suggest a dearth of experiments, however. Two particularly intriguing tales — Scheherazade and Samsa in Love — are also among the more fantastical and dream-like. The former falls into the category of works such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), in that key plot elements can be seen as representative of the narrative structure.
The story that best puts the “magical” in magical realism is Samsa in Love, a play on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). Thrust into an “ill-formed, fragile, ludicrous” human body, an insect must come to terms with his new physical and metaphysical realities. The narration is languid and almost directionless at points, as it explores Samsa being thrust into the world of human interactions with the arrival of a hunchbacked female locksmith at the house he is in, with little idea of even the concept of lust or romantic interest.
When it comes to a central component in Murakami’s exploration of loneliness and curiosity, which are, by nature, deeply intertwined with notions of love and lust, a level of indulgence on the part of readers is undoubtedly necessary. Within the Americanophilic, dream-like worlds that the author builds, there is a thin line between the confidently-paced and “get to the point already!” This line tends to be a divisive one, placing most readers firmly in one camp or the other.
Those who find the indulgence to stroll along this narrative path, however, will likely find themselves in a space one character refers to as the “unrealness of reality”. Left adrift here, in the beguiling space where the author thrives, readers will have to find their own way out. A few, if they’re lucky enough, might chance across a cat or two along the way.