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.


Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now


Latest

Give Kate A Voice: Bringing Kate Sheppard's speeches to life
96352 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Give Kate A Voice: Bringing Kate Sheppard's speech…

by Noted

Famous Kiwi women read the powerful words of Kate Sheppard, who fought for the right for women to vote.

Read more
Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provocateur Mary Ann Müller
96479 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provoca…

by Cathie Bell

Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived here, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.

Read more
Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary about his life
96472 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary …

by James Robins

Joe Stephenson’s tender documentary Playing the Part looks at McKellen's life as an actor, activist and perpetual wizard.

Read more
The case for closing prisons
96403 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Social issues

The case for closing prisons

by Paul Little

If we want a prison system that does a better job than the current one, alternatives aren’t hard to find.

Read more
Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist mixing rugby with politics
96422 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist …

by Clare de Lore

Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.

Read more
Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking flight
96439 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Music

Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking fligh…

by James Belfield

Don McGlashan is taking some old unloved songs on his New Zealand tour.

Read more
Are We There Yet? is the exhibition marking 125 years of women's suffrage in NZ
95961 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Arts

Are We There Yet? is the exhibition marking 125 ye…

by Linda Herrick

The exhibition at Auckland Museum shows there is still ground to make up.

Read more
Mr Wiki: Mike Dickison is NZ's first Wikipedian at large
96030 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Tech

Mr Wiki: Mike Dickison is NZ's first Wikipedian at…

by Elisabeth Easther

The entomologist will work on outreach programmes and recruiting editors to improve the sparse coverage of New Zealand topics.

Read more