Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami, ISBN 9780451494, Bond Street Books, 2017
"Well, that was weird!" might be the first fleeting thought to cross a reader's mind who is new to experiencing Haruki Murakami's bizarre world of jazz, baseball, ghosts, cats, spaghetti, marathon, sex, and ironing. Bathed in an ever-gyrating whirlpool of urban myths, parables, postmodern nightmares, miracles, puzzles, and pop art, Murakami's characters appear as those familiar strangers with whom you could gladly share a psychedelic trip down the dark abyss of deserted memories. The Kafkaesque prose master's unusual dream-reality requires a contemplative engagement of one's memory in all its missing bits and poetic elusiveness. On that account, his romantic treatment of the shadowy figures of imagination captures a less predictable world of fantasies and fickle nostalgia.
Despite its clearly strong narrative command over everyday reality and substantial issues, the idiosyncratic pattern of storytelling one comes across in Murakami's latest translated collection, Men Without Women (2017) is not an exception either. This book may be easily misunderstood for its somewhat obscurantist title, for it has nothing to do with Hemingway's narrative of rugged prizefighters in his similarly titled 1927 work from which our Japanese storyteller would seem to have borrowed the phrase. Indeed, Murakami's men harbor an acute fear of emotional intimacy, especially when the unforeseen advent or disappearance of a mysterious woman strikes their plastic lives like a brief bright thunderbolt. For his prosaic generations of modern-day hikikomori, voluntary estrangement from personal histories serves as a pseudo-security blanket that offers momentary comfort. Nevertheless, an inevitable existential awakening ultimately stalks them to a state of cryptic mindlessness, making each story a sullen statement on alienation, absurdity, and existential despair.
For example, the first story "Drive My Car" (echoing a Beatles song) shuns how the timely intervention of a taciturn female driver (Misaki) begins to confront all the lapses and "sickness" in a widowed actor's (Kafufu) flawed memoriae: robotic reenactment of scenes from the past, complacent categorization of people as "entities" and "nonentities," pretentious quest for emotional convenience, false propensity for "becoming somebody else," and most importantly, amnesiac "blind spots", both as observer and husband. The enduring “silence” of the end, however, leaves us mystified about Kafufu's dealing with the hollowness he never came to terms with. The concept of the protagonist trying to review the past as "a totally different person" from who he or she originally was is worked out in the second story, "Yesterday" as well, where Murakami demonstrates almost a Salingerian affection for an eccentric college dropout, Kitaru who lives in Denenchofu yet acquires the Kansai dialect, sings The Beatles' track "Yesterday" in garbled lyrics, invites a friend to date his own girlfriend and lastly, decides to become a sushi chef in Denver. In the story, the idea of Kitaru never quite knowing where he belongs plays out on multiple levels of signification, including that of the kind of trans-cultural insecurity a post-WWII hybrid millennial may feel about his or her floating conscience trapped in an a temporal "growth ring" and bygone "yesterday."
The protagonists of the next two stories, "An Independent Organ" and "Scheherazade" both meditate on lovesickness as a strange medical condition in which the core idea of storytelling itself compels its characters to reinvent their eventful past as a potent tool to negotiate the present. The former deals with Murakami's narrator-ego recalling his memories of the narcissistic plastic surgeon, Dr. Tokai and his suicide from self-inflicted starvation, whereas the latter involves Scheherazade (a contemporary counterpart of the ancient Arabian Night's storyteller) reliving her teenage self's unusual obsession with breaking into peoples' houses and stealing "erotically charged" tokens. When the once flamboyant doctor wonders, "Who in the world am I?" or Scheherazade imagines her incarnation as a storytelling lamprey fish, what becomes clear is that neither of them is truly ever prepared to leave behind the nostalgic familiarity of their habitual past. It constantly manages to return and haunt their unsure present, be it in the form of an anorexic disorder incited by one's reading of the Nazi techniques of inhumane torture, or of a lamprey fish "fastened to the rock, eying a fat trout swimming by".
Similarly, in the next three stories, "Kino," "Samsa in Love" and "Men without Women," Murakami deploys a sarcastic edge over his characters' futile attempts to identify and fill the "empty caverns" inside their mind. "Kino" vaguely recounts the notion of ancestral memories being "useful" through an allegorical portraiture of cats, "ambiguous" snakes, cigarette marks, willow trees, aggressive bar goers, soft jazz, and Shinto spirits. "Samsa in Love," on the other hand, gestures at a reversal of Kafka's The Metamorphosis where, we remember, a confused Samsa underwent an "embarrassing" humane transformation, only to discover that he could not remember ever living a human life before. Finally, the "second loneliest man on earth" in the last piece of the collection, "Men Without Women," keeps longing for a conclusive "essence of truth" about meaningful relationships in order to rid himself of his past romantic attachments. Yet, in an imaginary dimension that is unable to define itself within any set of spatio-temporal parameters, the omnipresent ghosts of his former lovers, "sailors" and "unicorns" never quite leave him alone.
In the end, it is their vain pursuit of such unresolved mysteries of life that defines Murakami's men without women, his drifters living "in a relentlessly frigid plural." Even though the temptation of an indecipherable loneliness permeates their lives like non-washable "Bordeaux wine stain," they are the "pastel-colored Persian carpets," demonstrating the responsive resilience it requires for one to master kintsugi, the art of embracing damage. Just like Beethoven's numbers—odd and even notes played in parallel—their strengths and vulnerabilities resonate powerfully with our ones. Each story complements the collection in its own and unique way as would a complete track-list of experimental recordings in a unified concept album. One could venture to say that after taking a meditative dive into the collapsing montage of Murakami's world full of lonely men, perhaps, the multivalent readerly epiphany is that of unforced awe at a boat rowed against the current, where before anything else, the boatmen "felt."
Nishat Shoilee has just graduated from the University of Dhaka