Meditation on loneliness of men and solitude of love
Short stories: Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker,hardback, 240 pages, €19.99
Japanese author Haruki Murakami's fourth short story collection presents the reader with a series of male characters cast adrift without a female anchor For a new edition of debut novel Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami penned a new preface entitled 'The Birth of my Kitchen-Table Fiction'. In it, he reflects on how most people (in Japanese society, at least) "graduate from school, then find work, then, after some time has passed, get married". The much-celebrated author, who came to writing relatively late in life, "chose the exact opposite of what was considered normal" by doing things in the other way round.
Marriage came first for Murakami. This may count for something, especially when one considers the García Márquez levels of romance in his litany of titles over the years.
The "solitude of love", the enduring loneliness of being unable to share a deep personal longing, has cropped up in Murakami's catalogue everywhere, from the perfect nocturnal strangers of After Dark to the fledgling romantic steps he traces in Norwegian Wood. Murakami is a hopeless romantic.
His fourth short-story collection does what it says on the tin. Self-schooled and uncontaminated by writerly edicts, the 68-year-old presents subjects directly on a platter before the reader - in this case, a series of male characters cast adrift without a female anchor to their lives - but stirs up all kinds of themes and truths in the allegorical mud through his gentle, almost conversational style.
Some of these chapters, imparted by a narrator as bemused as they are informed, can have an almost essayish shape to them. There are ponderous meditations here that suddenly swoop long and deep into existential chasms where love is at the forefront of man's search for meaning.
Take 'Scheherezade', a tale of Habara, an isolated, house-bound man being provided with love by his titular female care worker. After coldly mechanical love-making, she, like her Persian namesake, tells him tales of not only her darkly obsessive behaviour, but also her fascination with lampreys, suckerfish that stealthily prey on hosts. She and the lampreys are ancient species that cannot change their ancient ways. She is Habara's lifeline to the outside world but she might consume him in the process. Love may just be worth this.
Another angle on men's uneasy dependence on women is remarked on in 'Samsa in Love', where a fully formed but infantile manchild comes to life in an apartment without the apparatus to negotiate the world in front of his face. A knock on the door, a female locksmith and a door finally opened up to him in the apartment - this is entry-level Murakami at his magic-realist best. Even if the metaphor feels a little glib, it is so subtly posited that you can't help but accept it by the end.
Love confines and love consumes. 'Kino' brings us to a modest jazz bar (presumably much like the one Murakami and his wife ran in their early years) where a self-exiled man has begun a new life after walking in on his wife and his friend. After duly walking straight out again, he attains a certain freedom and a quiet sense of rebirth. He finds comfort in the regularity of his customers and a mysterious cat that snoozes in a corner of his bar, but outside strife may expose his inability to look his dead marriage in the eye. The resolution, like many in Murakami's world, is mute, smoky and drenched in the kind of symbolism that requires a butterfly net.
'Drive My Car' (which, like 'Yesterday', is partly a nod to the author's other musical obsession, the Fab Four) also features a character tucking themselves away for a quiet life without his wife, this time following her death. Kafuku is a stage actor who requires a chauffeur to drive him to the theatre in downtown Ginza each day. He takes on Misaki, a gruff, chain-smoking girl who slowly becomes a bemusing confidante who allows him to re-examine his time with his late wife, for better or worse. It is a highlight - memorable, prismatic and beautiful, like all Murakami's best works.
The great Kyoto native has often seemed to evade the "Japanese" tag, preferring to take his cues from American, European and Russian fiction (and even writing his early works in English before translating them into his native tongue). And yet there is something quintessentially Japanese about what he does, particularly here in the short-story format. It's there in the way he zooms in on small, delicate moments and sensations, things as fleeting and precious as the sakura itself. It's also surely there in the metaphors he draws about vegetation in general - plants outgrowing their pots and hard winters compacting a tree's growth rings and thereby strengthening it.
The title story finds ghosts moving through telephone lines as a late-night phonecall informs a man that a lover from his teenage years (the same breed of 'Martha' that Tom Waits sang about) has died by suicide. Maybe no real sense is to be made of such things so we instead look for fragmentary grasps of the elemental in order to make sense of the tangible, such as a gesture from a girl in a classroom that will be taken to the grave. "Waiting for someone you don't know somewhere between knowledge and ignorance. Tears falling on the dry road as you check the pressure of your tyres."
As with other corners of Murakami's oeuvre, patience is needed with Men Without Women. These ideas and ruminations on romantic solitude, both corporeal and spiritual, may not transpire over 100 years but they do require you to slow down and take the scenic route. Once you do, they unfold with a momentum all their own.