I have read literally hundreds of thousands of words written by Haruki Murakami. I may not have read everything he has written but I have read most of it, and written about a fair proportion of it. And yet the man and his work remain something of an enigma to me.
I have heard him called a magician and I understand where that comes from – Murakami has the weird ability to conjure something out of nothing, to be profound while being banal, to unlock truth through cliche and to create fantastical worlds out of the everyday.
Long after I have forgotten the detail of his plots, I remember a telling image or, even more vividly, an atmosphere and a feeling. And nagging away in the background is the question of whether he is a great writer or just a popular one, and whether those two apparently antithetical ideas are really antithetical or just made so by literary critics.
Any resolution of these and other issues I might have hoped for by reading Men Without Women, his latest collection of seven short stories, was always doomed to fail. And so it proved.
Within the creative writing world there is a sort of orthodoxy. Point of view must be consistent; in the short story every word must count; adverbs must be eschewed, etc. Go on any creative writing course and you will rapidly discover what I mean.
And Murakami, with the contempt that only a massively popular, skilled, and brilliant writer can command, knocks them all flying. Point of view shifts all over the place, whole sections of stories are overwritten by repeating the same thing in several different ways, and nobody is going to tell Murakami or his wonderful translators what vocabulary he can or can’t use. And you know what? The stories are still gripping, thought-provoking, elegant, poignant, and memorable. Which must go to prove something.
Murakami lovers, and there are millions worldwide, will find themselves in very familiar territory here. Obviously the connecting theme of the stories is men without women but the majority take place in settings that will stir memories of previous novels.
Think Murakami and you may well think of lonely characters, frequently sitting in bars, listening to jazz while in a one-to-one conversation about an absent third.
In “Drive My Car”, the first story in the collection, “the two were drinking in Aoyama at a small nondescript bar tucked away in a narrow lane behind the Nezu Museum. The bartender was a quiet man of about forty, and a skinny gray cat was curled up on a display shelf in a corner of the room…. An old jazz record was spinning on the turntable…”. In this case, the discussion is about the central character’s dead wife, and there is a twist: she was unfaithful and the protagonist has befriended her lover without making him aware that he knows of their clandestine relationship.
In a story entitled “Kino”, the eponymous hero has resigned from his job as a sports shoe salesman after discovering the infidelity of his wife. “The betrayal had been a shock, for sure, but, as time passed, he began to feel as if it couldn’t have been helped, as if this had been his fate all along.”
He opens a bar and waits for customers, meanwhile reading his books and playing his favourite jazz records. He finds stability of sorts: “The most he could do was create a place where his heart – devoid now of any depth or weight – could be tethered, to keep it from wandering aimlessly.”
Ah, the aimless wandering of the heart – another Murakami signature.
That a number of these stories are set, or partly set, in familiar surroundings provides linkage rather than repetition or duplication. In fact, there is a wide cast of characters here: an actor and a chauffeur, in “Drive My Car” (one of two Beatles references here); a cosmetic plastic surgeon in “An Independent Organ”; a housekeeper/storyteller in “Scheherazade”; an eccentric student who becomes fluent in an obscure dialect not his own in “Yesterday” (the second Beatles reference); and a decidedly original version of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. And being Murakami, every story comes complete with its unexpected developments and twists that take it far away from the over-familiar.
By his choice of title, Men Without Women, Murakami inevitably invites comparison with the 1927 Ernest Hemingway collection of the same name; by inverting Kafka’s Metamorphosis so that his protagonist wakes as Gregor Samsa he invites comparison with one of the most famous stories of all time.
You could argue that these are dangerous waters and I have no intention, as I said at the beginning, of swimming in them. A popular writer? Indisputably. A great one? Maybe. But absolutely definitely: enjoyable, clever, melancholic, humorous, inventive, entertaining and haunting. That will certainly do me for a start – and it will also do for millions of others.
Men Without Women
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf