Generally we approach works of fiction with certain expectations even though we can't always predict the events. Pleasure in reading, it can be argued, hinges upon the satisfaction of these expectations. Haruki Murakami, however, is difficult to categorise and, as a result, the reader is usually not sure what to expect from his works, except perhaps a vague sense of existential suffering, a protean reality, fickle extramarital affairs, vanishing cats, intimate conversations about music, ambiguous dreams, and a plethora of interesting characters.
Nevertheless, Murakami's works can be loosely divided into two categories: first, there are surreal works, such as Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, that play with the idea of multiple realities and supernatural beings. Then there is Norwegian Wood that somewhat adheres to the realistic conventions of fiction. Men Without Women, Murakami's first short story collection in over a decade, and undoubtedly among his best, falls in the latter category.
In today's world of ultra-individualism, frantic pace, and the desire for instant gratification, emotional vulnerability is denigrated as not just undesirable, but extremely risky. The characters in this collection are all lonely souls who choose not to completely open up to the women they love, and as a result, end up as 'men without women.'
'Drive My Car', the first story, is narrated by Kafuku, a reasonably well-known actor. As a result of a minor accident, he can no longer drive, so he hires a young, brusque girl called Misaki Watari who smokes like a chimney and tends to shoot from the hip on the rare occasions that she talks. While Misaki drives him in his yellow Saab 900 convertible (Murakami never omits specifications of the cars and trains in his works), Kafuku slowly starts to open up to her about his past. Shortly before his wife died of cancer, he found out that she had been cheating on him. After her death he struck up a friendship with her lover in order to understand why she chose him over Kafuku, but felt only tormented in his presence. Despite the difference in the nature of their relationship with her, neither man can get over his loss.
The men in this book are often troubled by things they didn't have the courage to do; Kafuku's biggest regret is that he didn't confront his wife when she was alive: “The question never ventured, the answer never proffered.” A typical Murakami man, Kafuku finds escape in his work as performing allows him to be someone other than himself, “[b]ut the self that one returned to was never exactly the same as the self that one left behind.”
The two main characters in 'Yesterday' go one step ahead and acquire different dialects to become different persons, “because in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as people.” Kitaru masters the Kansai dialect to such perfection that people think he is from Kansai even though he was raised in Tokyo. Tanimura, on the other hand, is from Kansai but wants to be accepted in Tokyo; he painstakingly learns the Tokyo dialect so that nobody should be able to detect his Kansai origins.
These men are seeking something, but they don't always realise what it is: “That's what we all do: endlessly take the long way around.” Dr Tokai in 'An Independent Organ' used to live a surprisingly artificial life where “[w]hat his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other.” The deep sense of loss after he loses the woman he loves is suffocating, but also leads him to wonder who he really is.
In 'Scheherazade', Habara wishes to leave his self behind and inhabit another time or space. Like the other men, he feels isolated from the world: “I am not stranded on a desert island. No, he thought, I am a desert island.” He finds escape in the stories told by the woman who takes care of his provisions and is also his sexual partner. She tells him incredible stories, but what does it matter whether they are fabrications or truth as long as they help him forget who he is? He doesn't love her and the intimacy is so closely linked with storytelling that he isn't sure where one ends and the other begins.
Action for Murakami is not a sequence of external events; it's often internal to the subconscious. By that I do not refer to a character's reflection on their life that eventually leads to self-discovery, but an autonomous representation of existence on a subconscious level. 'Kino' focuses on the inner turmoil of Kino after he finds out his wife is having an affair with his friend, but he feels no anger or bitterness towards her. He realises that all his life he has never really felt any emotions: “Happiness? He wasn't even sure what that meant. He didn't have a clear sense, either, of emotions like pain or anger, disappointment or resignation, and how they were supposed to feel.” He feels stuck in a limbo, unable to find an anchor in either the external or the internal world as “the movement of time seemed not to be fixed properly. The bloody weight of desire and the rusty anchor of remorse were blocking its normal flow. Time was not an arrow flying in a straight line.”
The stories get progressively darker and more powerful. “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Thus starts 'Samsa in Love'—Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis in reverse. Murakami brings into question ideas of what it means to be a human being by revealing how it would feel for something to be suddenly trapped in a human body with its “ravenous desire”. Samsa wishes he had been turned into a fish or sunflower so that he could have spent his life in peace rather than living the perilous life of a human being.
'Men Without Women', the last story, is a philosophical meditation on what it means to be so: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats... But by then here is no going back. Once you go round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called 'Men Without Women'. Always a relentlessly frigid plural.” Once you've become that, “loneliness seeps deep down inside your body, like a red wine stain on a pastel carpet. No matter how many home economics books you study, getting rid of that stain isn't easy. The stain might fade a bit over time, but it will still remain, as a stain, until the day you draw your final breath.”
Loneliness looms over these protagonists who seem to be waiting for something or someone. Murakami's exploration of solitude and emptiness has allowed him to establish a different understanding of life. Shared life, it seems, is infinitely better than being alone, “but the proposition that we can look into another person's heart with perfect clarity strikes me as a fool's game.” In typical Murakami fashion we are led to believe that no matter how harrowing it is to be alone, “[i]f we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.”
Ammara Khan is an Ankara-based freelance writer.