Without her...

Without her...

Lead review

Men Without Women, the latest instalment of fiction from Haruki Murakami’s wonderfully weird imagination, arrives at a time when a title like that can ignite a Twitter war. Throw in the fact that Murakami, who has always paid eager tribute to his inspirations and enthusiasms, has lifted his title from the legendary story collection that established Ernest Hemingway’s great-white-macho-male reputation, and you might wonder if this book will offer up Murakami’s version of mansplaining — if it might, even, contain a not-so-veiled meditation on the lonely domestic life of a president whose wife has so far refused to live with him. At the risk of disappointing the culture police, Men Without Women is neither of these things.

What exactly is it, then? And what caused the long-married, 68-year-old author to lavish such extended attention on a themed collection of seven stories about wounded men who can’t seem to hold on to the women they love? As would befit a religious reader of detective novels, Murakami has been game enough to leave us a few clues, if only by accident. Tortured love affairs, of course, are nothing new to Murakami’s vast store of plotlines; he can, with little more than the flick of his pen, unspool a fresh wrinkle to the delighted awe of his readers, as he dutifully (and repeatedly) does here.

In one story, a DUI leads a widower to have a sober revelation about the reason his wife cheated on him; in another, a Holocaust memoir drives a brokenhearted doctor to starve himself to death; in a third, a teenager with an uncontrollable crush on a boy breaks into his house and steals an erotically charged pencil.

Men Without Women does not feature an explanatory introduction. Murakami’s last story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, did, however, and in it he revealed that it is only when he is between novels — in what he calls an ‘intermezzo’ — that his thoughts turn to short fiction. He also clarified his intentions for the 2000 collection After the Quake, which dealt with the 1995 Kobe earthquake: “I’d written it in the hope that all six stories would form a unified image in the reader’s mind, so it was more like a concept album than a short story collection.”

Since the components that make up Men Without Women share a common thread, it doesn’t seem unfair to imagine that Murakami might have had the same music-industry metaphor in mind when he wrote it. In a 2014 conversation with The New Yorker (where four of these stories originally appeared), he even hinted that his aim was to hit a blue note: “What I wish to convey in this collection is, in a word, isolation, and what it means emotionally.”

The melancholy soufflé Murakami whips up in these pages is decidedly masculine, a rainy Tokyo of unfaithful women, neat single malt, stray cats, cool cars and classic jazz played on hi-fi setups like the one described in ‘dudeular’  detail — “Thorens turntable, a Luxman amp and small JBL two-way speakers” — in a standout story called Kino, in honour of the main character.

The equipment is the tweaked prize possession of a jilted loner who comes home one night to find his wife’s ‘lovely breasts bouncing up and down’ courtesy of his best friend. He has since moved to an apartment above his aunt’s old coffee shop, which he turns into a failing bar, frequented by no one besides some irritable mobster types, a bald, beer-and-whiskey-drinking man who might be a Shinto spirit, and a woman Kino takes to bed whose body is covered in cigarette burns.

A track Kino spins one evening — the Coleman Hawkins version of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho — prompts the omniscient narrator to note, with what might strike the reader as too much omniscience about jazz history, that what Kino enjoyed most was the bass solo of Major Holley. It’s a quick yet poignant juxtaposition: a man cosmically knocked out of sync with the universe, being reminded of the courage it takes to improvise. “Don’t play what’s there,” as Miles Davis said. “Play what’s not there.”

Coming across a look-at-me line like that, a reader hardly needs Murakami to cue a drumroll to sense that the narrative pulse of the story has just gone up a few beats per second. Murakami puts the performance in performance art. If only there were a literary equivalent of ‘Iron Chef’, since throughout this collection Murakami riffs on some pretty hefty classics. Kafka’s Metamorphosis, told in reverse: no problem! A retelling of The Arabian Nights set in Tokyo, featuring a kinky nurse and the mysterious man she looks after: easy! And when he’s not taking on the canon, he’s upping the narrative ante to see if he can escape the conventions of the form — and he almost always does.

The title story, however, seems to have been included in the hope that, in the absence of a preface, it might explain the collection’s unifying theme. ‘A pastel-coloured Persian carpet’ is how the despondent narrator describes what it means to be a man without a woman. But by this time, the woebegone images have piled up to such an extent that this last sketch feels redundant, and I wished instead for something less ambiguously ambiguous about what exactly attracted Murakami to the kind of affable characters his writerly alter ego Mr. Tanimura, in An Independent Organ, describes as ‘shallow, mediocre and boring’.

Then again, if there’s no more to them than that, why does Tanimura himself become so drawn to such a creature as Dr. Tokai, whom he meets playing squash and who is ‘always a casual number-two lover, a convenient rainy-day boyfriend or else a handy partner for a casual fling’. One day, for the first time in his life, the dedicated bachelor falls in love with one of the married women he’s been sleeping with.

The superficial doctor becomes a nervous wreck, so petrified he will lose the woman that he attempts to develop ‘love antibodies’ by listing as many of ‘her defects as I can come up with — her imperfections, I should say. And I repeat these over and over in my head like a mantra, convincing myself not to love this woman more than I should.’

“Has it worked?” the voyeuristic Tanimura asks. “No, not so well,” the desperate doctor replies. “First of all, I couldn’t come up with many negative things about her. And there’s the fact that I find even those negative qualities attractive.” So it might also be said of this slim but beguilingly irresistible book. Like a lost lover, it holds on tight long after the affair is over.

Men Without Women
Haruki Murakami,
translated by Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen

Random House

2017, pp 228

Rs. 316