Book review

Murakami writes as mysteriously as ever about men without women, but somewhere the magic is missing

How many times can stories without endings be written?

There’s always an inexplicable sense of anticipation every time a new Haruki Murakami book comes out. Yet again, one dreams, and happily so, of inhabiting a world where cats talk and women disappear without notice; where the real seems unreal, and the meaning of reason is effortlessly lost.

But can every new Murakami pull it off?

Murakami’s newest short story collection, Men Without Women: Stories, released in English translation in May, is, like most of his other works, laden with his signature themes of melancholy, alienation, infidelity, and introspection. Ardent fans will agree that Murakami is a master of open-ended mysteries, and this edition is no different. Dreamlike sequences pregnant with existential fears overpower each of the seven stories.

He takes control of each protagonist’s mind and soul, works his way around their thoughts and actions, and manages to satisfy the reader in his trademark enigmatic fashion. And yet, something is missing.

When she went away

Murakami begins this collection with “Drive My Car”, the story of Kafuku, an ageing actor and his pained withdrawal from all things fun after the sudden death of his wife. But it’s not just her demise that has left him in a state of unwelcome solitude; it’s her numerous secret love affairs that he struggles to comprehend.

In no way does Kafuku attempt to cap the weight of emptiness he feels day in and day out, but somehow he finds himself opening up to his new chauffeur – a young woman whom he appoints to drive his yellow Saab 900 convertible. Her impeccable driving and the absence of unnecessary small talk reassures Kafuku into finding himself comfortably seated in the confessional backseat, recounting the most personal events of his life without having the fear of being judged.

Then there is “Samsa in Love”, Murakami’s role-reversal take on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where instead of Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself turned into a roach, the roach wakes up to discover that he is a two-legged, fully-clothed human named Gregor Samsa. The story, however, is more than just about the bug adjusting to being human.

Murakami’s use of a politically loaded backdrop – the Prague Spring of 1968, when freedom of speech and democracy was quelled under the Soviet hegemony – is clever and sharp. And the story offers glimpses of typical Murakami wisdom: “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”

Every story is unique, if not incredible, to say the least, but “Kino” is a sure-shot stand out. The protagonist, Kino, after witnessing his wife’s adultery (he practically walks in on his wife and her lover together in bed) quits his job and takes to living a low-profile life as a bar-owner. “He couldn’t make anyone else happy, and, of course, couldn’t make himself happy…The most he could do was create a place where his heart – devoid now of any depth or weight – could be tethered, to keep it from wandering aimlessly.”

But it’s not just Kino’s ruminations that are appealing, it’s also, in fact, the overall mood that the story creates – a dim backstreet bar, old jazz melodies playing on a loop, a gray cat that has picked a display case to be its sleeping corner, and a returning customer who likes his glass of Scotch and keeps his head dug into a book – that makes the story as delicious as you’d expect.

Nothing like its namesake

The title, Men Without Women, is, of course, borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s collection of short stories published in 1927. Murakami’s version, however, bears no resemblance to the legendary author and tortured Nobel laureate’s collection, which celebrated the muscular themes of bullfighting and prizefighting, as well as the customary matters of infidelity, divorce and death.

Western art has always influenced Murakami’s works and so, it’s not surprising that he has chosen to employ Hemingway’s famed anthology-title to offers his insights on what it means to be men without women.

“What I wish to convey in this collection is, in a word, isolation, and what it means emotionally. ‘Men Without Women’ is a concrete example of that,” said Murakami to New Yorker.

There are no extraordinary closures here. Men carry on with their glass of single malt accompanying their forlorn lives, women find peace in moving into oblivion, and the obedient jazz record lends musical life to the otherwise odd tales. Somewhat repetitive in places, a tad lacklustre this is Murakami on a slightly off-colour day. He still gets his magic right, but perhaps we’re beginning to sense what’s coming. And that’s not a good thing for a writer of Murakami’s stature.

Men Without Women: Stories, Haruki Murakami, Knopf

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.