MEN WITHOUT WOMEN
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 240 pages
Fans of the best-selling author Haruki Murakami maybe understand it best: Great books are worth the wait. It’s been three years since “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” appeared in English. Mr. Murakami’s newest novel, “Killing Commendatore,” was released in Japan on Feb. 24, and if history serves as a guide, we will likely have to wait over a year for the English translation.
To help us bide the time, Mr. Murakami’s short story collection “Men Without Women” came out this month in English translation. And while it traces much the same ground covered in his earlier works, it is nonetheless a strong reminder of the power of good writing and clever storytelling.
As the title story suggests, “Men Without Women” explores the dynamic of human relationships — the relationship of men to their wives’ lovers, of men to their lovers’ husbands, of secretaries to their bosses and of men to one another. And Mr. Murakami interweaves his often dreamlike narratives into other well-known works, such as Kafka’s “Metamorphoses” and “One Thousand and One Nights.” Yet the book remains wholly in the Murakami universe. As one character puts it in ‘Scheherazade,’ reality can be “terribly unreal.” And this “unreal” reality predominates in the seven stories.
Mr. Murakami begins the collection with “Drive My Car,” the story of Kafuku, an actor pained by his wife’s affairs and sudden death from cancer. By all counts, their marriage was a happy one. But left in a solitary state, he’s forced to grapple with the reasons for his wife’s numerous affairs. He recounts all this to his new chauffeur (or chauffeuse, if you will), a mysterious woman who drives the yellow Saab 900 convertible so impeccably that she earns the trust and confidence of the reserved and routine Kafuku.
His back seat becomes a sort of confessional — a place where Kafuku muses the joyous and, at times, painful relationship between men and women.
“Men Without Women,” like the bulk of Murakami’s works, carries with it the signature marks of the author. We return once again to the land of jazz, baseball, vinyls, daydreams and guys asking their best friends to go out with their girlfriends. It’s a quiet, strange place that rewards introspection, as well as a sense of humor.
“Yesterday” sketches a few months in the life of Kitaru, a Tokyo-native obsessed with everything from the Kansai region, including the dialect, which he has mastered and speaks exclusively (the rough equivalent of a native New Yorker adopting a Louisiana accent). The narrator quickly befriends Kitaru while the two work at a small coffee shop near the university the narrator attends and Kitaru has been trying to get into for two years. And the two share an unusual bond: The narrator is himself from Kansai, but has adopted the standard accent and manners of someone from Tokyo; Kitaru, the opposite.
As the narrator explains, “Another reason I stopped using the Kansai dialect was that I wanted to become a totally different person.” Yet in becoming a new person, the narrator sees the reflection of his former self in Kitaru, just as Kitaru sees the narrator aspire to his own Tokyo upbringing. They meet briefly at this strange crossroads before continuing their separate ways.
As in “Norwegian Wood” and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” men in Mr. Murakami’s books often struggle on the boundary of emotional closeness to one another, creating a degree of sexual tension. This often plays out in a fantastical, dreamlike way or in the suggestion of a friend spend time with the other’s girlfriend. Women serve from time to time as intermediaries, a refuge where men feel comfortable discussing their emotional intimacy with one another or with other women.
Perhaps the most delightful — and surprising — story is “Samsa,” a play on Kafka’s “Metamorphoses” in which a young man wakes up only to realize he’s human. It’s a highly imaginative twist that follows Mr. Murakami’s typical pattern of bending reality through the bizarre and then back again.
In the end, the seven stories leave us hoping for more — pure anticipation of the full-length novel. And let’s be honest: Great writers have good marketing teams. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to read Haruki Murakami. And “Men Without Women” is a great collection, a book with a pace that’s neither slow nor fast, but just right, like jogging.
In the current cycle of nonstop breaking news, it’s almost easy to forget the pleasure of stepping into another universe for a few hours. My advice: Be indulgent. Read it in a single afternoon. Don’t look up until you finish. And when you do, take a deep breath before returning back to reality. It would do us all some good.
• Thom Murphy is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area. He will enter the doctoral program in French at New York University in the fall.