Haruki Murakami is arguably the most well-known Japanese author for western audiences. With a writing career that spans over forty years, Murakami has been delighting readers for decades with his signature surrealist humour and bittersweet reflection on the transience of life.
While Murakami has written some wonderful novels, I’ve found myself gravitating towards his short stories lately. One of his most memorable collections is Men Without Women, a poignant series of short stories that delves into the concept of loneliness and what it means for different people.
In the absence of female company, all of the men in this collection have lost something. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s obvious. The reader feels it in every word and that is Murakami’s talent on full display.
Loss, low-self-esteem and triumph
Men Without Women is made up of seven stories and the first, ‘Drive My Car’, depicts the life of a stage actor called Kafuku and his relationship with his female driver Misaki Watari. Kafuku desires to be driven around in silence, which works for Misaki, who’s content to leave her past behind and focus on the simple act of driving.
Over the course of the story, Kafuku opens up about his relationship with his wife, who passed away, revealing a hollowness that has been left within him ever since her death. Acting became the vehicle in which he could channel his emotions and he continued to love his wife, even though he knew she was unfaithful several times.
Kafuku tells Misaki the story of how he confronted one of his wife’s ex-lovers and what he planned to do. But the ending isn’t what Misaki expects and neither is it for the reader.
The second story, ‘Yesterday’ deals with themes of teenage love. It focuses on the relationship between a guy named Tanimura and the dynamic he has with his friend Kitaru and Kitaru’s girlfriend Erika.
Kitaru convinces Tanimura to go out on a date with Erika because he believes his friend is a ‘good guy.’ When Tanimura asks why Kitaru would want to do such a thing, he admits that he’s ‘split in two’ and that since he and Erika have been together since they were children he wants to give her the opportunity to experience something different.
The themes of ‘Yesterday’ range from low self-esteem to taking a chance on the unknown. Although Tanimura is the protagonist, the story is really about Kitaru and the transformation he has to go through to move forward in life.
Love functions by its own rules
The third story, ‘An Independent Organ’ focuses on the life of a cosmetic plastic surgeon called Tokai and his attitude to women. Although he’s successful, Tokai is the eternal bachelor, carrying on with several affairs and allowing the flings to run their natural course.
But all that changes when he meets a married woman who changes his perception of love. Tokai becomes so obsessed with the woman that he’s unable to think about anything else. ‘An Independent Organ’ poses the idea that the heart is a separate organ that functions outside of conventional logic and follows its own set of rules. It’s one of the strongest stories in this collection.
In ‘Scheherazade’, sex and passion permeate the page. The story centres on the relationship between a man named Habara and a woman he’s dubbed Scheherazade after the character from A Thousand and One Nights. The woman is a gifted storyteller and Habara is head over heels for her, even though she’s married with two children.
Over the course of the tale, Habara finds himself constantly comparing her to the fictional Scheherazade and being aware of the many differences. Everyone is prone to inventing a fantasy to suit their perception of the person they love and that is at the heart of the narrative. Sometimes, it’s easier to live in a fantasy world than it is to acknowledge reality or face up to your own loneliness.
Surrealism takes over
For the fifth story, ‘Kino’, Murakami digs into his bag of surrealistic tricks in glorious fashion. It focuses on a man named Kino who owns a bar he named after himself. Kino separated from his wife and decided to move away for a fresh start in the Izu Kogen Highlands.
While running his bar, Kino encounters a strange patron called Kamita and is caught in the middle of an abusive relationship between a couple that frequent his bar. When weird things start to happen, Kino is forced to confront the sadness he’s been carrying around with him and there’s a sense of catharsis by the end of the story.
‘Samsa In Love’ is inspired by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, flipping the situation for Gregor Samsa. Rather than being transformed into a bug, Samsa wakes up as a human. This is the funniest story of the collection, as it deals with Samsa having to get used to the ‘ill-formed’ shape of being human.
But as comical as ‘Samsa In Love’ is there’s also a message of hope. Samsa develops an attraction to a woman with a deformity, highlighting that loneliness isn’t a perpetual state. That every man can find a woman that is right for him.
The final story ‘Men Without Women,’ is a culmination of the other six stories, gathering all the themes into one relatable package. It depicts a man who fell in love with a woman called ‘M’ and reflects on how they could’ve been happy together, but she slowly disappeared from his life until he lost sight of her completely. As Murakami so eloquently puts it:
“I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say here. Maybe I’m trying to write about essence, rather than the truth. But writing about an essence that isn’t true is like trying to rendezvous with someone on the dark side of the moon. It’s dim and devoid of landmarks. And way too big.
What I want to say is, M is the woman I should have fallen in love with when I was fourteen. But it was only much later that I fell in love with her, and by then, sadly she was fourteen no more. We were mistaken about the time when we should have met. Like forgetting when you’re supposed to meet someone. You get the time of day and place right, but miscalculate the day.”
Men Without Women is filled with these kind of missed moments. It’s a haunting, playful, beautiful and relatable collection that proves men need women in their lives to make life worth living.