Inspiring Older Readers
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami
This set of seven short stories, five of which have appeared in other periodicals, is Murakami’s first short story collection for some time. The title suggests a unifying theme but that is a bit deceptive because the stories don’t just deal with the loneliness or isolation of men separated from women but a fundamental, almost existential lack of ability to connect.
Many of the men in Murakami’s world aren’t just damaged by life and circumstance, they are almost wilful self-harmers who seek out their own private tortures and personal hells. Above all they are driven by a curiosity to know even when knowing isn’t in their own best interests. What knowing leads to however is not always something these men are in any real position to deal with.
As always, Murakami is arch and playful with his readers – he has a sly and cunning sense of humour that percolates through the stories and somehow stops them from being overwhelmingly melancholic. His attachment to popular culture is legendary – as is his love for the Beatles, whose songs provide titles for the first two stories in the book; Drive My Car, the story of a cuckolded actor who finds his chauffeur-driven Saab becomes his confessional space and Yesterday where an insecure young man insists his beautiful girlfriend takes his close friend as a lover so that he will know just who she is betraying him with. In both of these stories an unhealthy, almost perverse curiosity drives the action of the men and sexual knowledge (however bizarre) becomes a power play.
Scheherazade with its deliberate nod towards The Thousand And One Nights picks up the issue of sexuality and curiosity through the filter of a mesmeric storyteller in the unlikely guise of an over-weight Japanese housewife. But my absolute favourite story in the whole collection is the enigmatic and wonderfully lyrical Kino. Kino’s marriage has broken down but he seems to take the event with a sort of dull equanimity, opting to leave work and open a bar in his own name in a back-street premises owned by his Aunt. He doesn’t encourage customers but ticks over by casual footfall, happy to simply play jazz records and just be. His most regular customer is a mysterious shaven-headed man who simply sits and reads as he drinks a single glass of cheap whisky. All well and good until we start to realise that there’s something odd going on here and maybe, just maybe, this shaven-headed man is something other than a casual customer – that he is in fact some kind of ‘protector’, even maybe a Shinto spirit. When one day the bar seems to be attracting usual visitations from snakes in numbers unprecedented in urban environments, Kino’s protector tells him he must leave the bar and travel – sending back postcards with no written messages on them simply to prove he is indeed travelling……….But, no more, you must read it for yourself.
For me the most disappointing story in the book is Murakami’s retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, that he calls Samsa In Love which feels contrived and awkward compared to what has gone before. The collection ends with Men Without Women, a deliberate echo of Hemingway’s original of that name but Murakami’s is a very different confection, packed with references to Western easy listening and elevator tunes.
For me the two thirds of the book that culminates with Kino is as good as anything of Murakami’s I’ve read and I think it’s a shame that the volume ends with two of the weaker efforts. I’m a huge fan and I’m happy to read almost anything he writes – leaving aside his book about running – and this is a more than worthy addition to his ever growing canon. I can’t wait for what comes next.