Book review: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

by Nicholas Reid / 25 June, 2017

Haruki Murakami. Photo/Getty Images

A Japanese maestro is at his best in this new short-story collection.

To say that you know what to expect when you pick up a book by Haruki Murakami is not to belittle the author. It simply means that Japan’s best-known, currently most exportable novelist has a tone of his own, as distinctive as Dickens’ or Dostoevsky’s. You know that in Murakami’s work, the main characters will be alienated men, ranging from late teens to middle age, often narrating their stories in the first person; you know that the setting will probably be Toyko, with most of the action in bars or one-person apartments; and you know that the soundtrack will be Western high and pop culture.

Thus it is in Men Without Women – a collection of seven short stories, first published in Japan three years ago and now getting an English-language edition (though four of the stories have previously appeared in the New Yorker).

These are Japanese men who listen to ­Beethoven, discuss Chekhov, enjoy the movies of Woody Allen and François Truffaut and listen to the Beatles or Art Tatum or Billie Holiday or other classic jazz. Then, of course, there’s Franz Kafka, a long-time preoccupation of Murakami. One of the stories, Samsa in Love, is a reversed version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which a bug becomes a man and haltingly learns what human sexual responses are.

When Hemingway produced a story collection called Men Without Women, he meant to emphasise the tough virility of men. When Murakami uses the same title, he is not literally telling stories from which women are absent. The men in these stories frequently have sex with women, try to connect with them, but end up disconnected, lonely and feeling they don’t really know the other sex at all.

An actor confesses to his female chauffeur that after his wife’s death, the only person he could relate to was his wife’s lover; an oddball student (Murakami often harks back to student days) gets another student to go on a date with his girlfriend because he’s no good at talking to her himself; a successful plastic surgeon has a series of brief affairs with married women, while wishing he had “love antibodies” to prevent himself from feeling too much for them, and when finally he forms a real relationship, he is lost. So it goes in Murakami’s sad world of male lovelessness.

At least as his translators present him to those who cannot read Japanese, Murakami’s greatest strengths as a writer are his clear, uncluttered prose and the ingenuity with which he is able to tell us exactly what he is doing while still surprising us. The story-within-a-story of the tale ­Scheherazade is a very neat piece of dovetailing.

The collection’s standout, Kino, begins when a man walks out on his wife after finding her in bed with another man and makes a new life running a bar for lonely beer-drinking guys like himself. But then, imperceptibly at first, it turns into something quite different and unexpected.

This is Murakami at his best.

MEN WITHOUT WOMEN, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen (Harvill Secker, NZ$45)

Nicholas Reid is a writer, poet and historian who blogs at Reid’s Reader.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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