Book Review: Men Without Women

Through overarching themes of loneliness, Murakami’s new collection of short stories explores relationship dynamics and what they mean to the human emotion.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Haruki Murakami/Facebook page

For ardent fans, picking up a new Murakami is like returning home after a long, exhaustive trip; to curl up under familiar sheets and be transported into a dream world, comforted by the predictability of its eerie strangeness.

Almost four years after his last major work of fiction made an appearance in English, Haruki Murakami’s latest international offering sees him making a return to short fiction. With this collection of seven stories titled Men Without Women, he explores the human psyche and the dynamics of human relationships under the overarching themes of love, lust, loneliness and longing.

Widely considered to be named after Hemingway’s short story collection, Murakami confirmed the fact in an interview with The New Yorker, “The title grabbed me first (of course, Hemingway’s short-story collection of the same title figured in), and the stories followed.”

© Haruki Murakami/Facebook

The title certainly is classic Murakami. After all, the man has spent his entire life writing about men in their thirties dealing with loss and loneliness.  But what does he mean – ‘Men Without Women’?

In the collection’s title story, the narrator explains, “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women. You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere. That’s all it takes.”

The story is about his reaction and reflection when he receives a call in the middle of the night informing that his ex-girlfriend has passed away. The harsh ring of the harbinger of death wakes him up from the warm bed that he shares with his wife, but you find him classifying himself as ‘Men Without Women’.

By exploring isolation and the angst of loneliness, from the void left by the women in the lives of these men, the collection becomes a dynamic exploration of human relationships, love, and the way men perceive their opposite sex.

© Nikhil Sreekandan

In one of the exclusive stories in the book, An Independent Organ, Dr Tokai, a plastic surgeon who’s always lived the life of ‘a casual number-two lover’, finally falls in love and it sends him reeling as he labours to handle this new-found emotion.

Following immediately is Scheherazade, a story about a man who is being held in a house that he can’t leave, where he is visited twice a week by a woman who has been hired to bring him food and supplies, and who also attends to his sexual needs. Habara gives her the name Scheherazade, for every time they have sex, afterwards, she tells him a strange and gripping story, like Queen Scheherazade of A Thousand and One Nights. He slowly grows fond of her and finds himself worrying every night whether he would see her again.

In An Independent Organ, Dr Tokai considers his heart to be entwined with his beloved’s, “Like we’re two boats tied together with a rope. Even if you want to cut the rope there’s no knife sharp enough to do it.” In Scheherazade, Habara defines his relationship a chance relationship that might be terminated on the other person’s whim, “In other words, they were attached by a slender thread.”

© Haruki Murakami/Facebook page

In another story,  Kino, Murakami is in his element as he paints the psychic landscape of a stoic who is seemingly unmoved by the discovery of his wife’s affair with his best friend but is deep down struggling to accept the fact that he is deeply hurt.

In, Yesterday, Murakami explores young love, comparing it to a beautiful eight-inch thick moon made of ice with its one-half sunk in the ocean, only to melt once the sun comes up.

Samsa in Love, which stands apart from the rest, is Murakami at his whimsical best as he flips Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its head to tell the tale of a bug who wakes up to find itself transformed into a man. The story takes an interesting turn when he falls in love with a locksmith who visits the house, a hunchback woman who constantly twists and writhes like a bug as she tries to fix her loose brassiere. Suddenly, Gregor Samsa finds his transformation all too worthwhile as he yearns to love and learn more about his new world.

© Nikhil Sreekandan

It is mesmerising the way Murakami paints a much larger picture through this sublime collection of short stories, with a desire to understand and to discover human connections and emotions.

The very opening of the book sets the tone — Drive My Car (the unavoidable Beatles reference) opens with the protagonist, Kafuku, contemplating the differences between women and men drivers and how he has always felt tensed when inside a car driven by a woman. The passage ends with him clarifying how he seldom drew distinctions between the sexes in general life, his inadequacy to do so, and how he actually felt more at ease while working with women at work. But the tension, when a woman sat with him with her hands on the steering wheel, he found impossible to ignore. Yet, he had never voiced his opinion on the matter, as he found it to be ‘terribly inappropriate’.

This is precisely what Murakami tries to tackle in this melancholic collection, as he introspects on how to better understand one another and how to understand the most essential human emotion of love.  And, like Kafuku from Drive My Car, who learns to take a quick nap with Misaki at the wheel, Men Without Women is a potentially rewarding experience for anyone who’d pick it up.

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