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

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