Beating down a familiar wood

At times, they read less like original stories than like discarded bits of old novels

Published - June 10, 2017 06:42 pm IST

Murakami Haruki—to use the Japanese form of his name—confounds, more than any other modern writer, the dubious dichotomy between “literary” and “genre” (or “commercial”) fiction. He has always been difficult to pin down. A new Murakami novel is an immediate bestseller across languages and continents; but unlike other global publishing cash cows, such as Dan Brown or Paulo Coelho, he is also an annual favourite, at least in the eyes of bookmakers, for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is best known as a surrealist, but made his reputation with a realist bildungsroman, Norwegian Wood .

His novels and stories tend to be set in and around Tokyo, but are full of references to Western, rather than Japanese, popular culture. He signals his debts to the great Western modernists, and his books can be exuberantly inventive, full of ideas, and formally complex. His prose, however, is simple in the sense of being flat and uninspired, rather than spare.

In any Murakami book one encounters stretches of writing so astonishingly bad it almost seems deliberately so. In this, as in many other respects, the English-language writer he most resembles is Paul Auster. For every reader or critic who thinks Murakami is a genius, there is another who regards him as a fraud, or at least overrated.

Standard Murakami fare

Men Without Women , his latest collection of stories, which appeared in Japanese in 2014, is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Murakami. These seven stories are wildly uneven in quality, but, collectively, they feature virtually all the standard Murakami motifs: a disappearing cat, a bar populated by lonely whiskey-drinkers and jazz music, Kafka, Beatles songs. They also share the characteristic weaknesses of his work, and a few of the strengths. At times they read less like original stories than like discarded bits of old novels that have been repackaged. It is an impression strengthened by the fact that a few of the stories feel shapeless and unfinished, as if they were meant to be the starting points for longer works.

The volume takes its title from a 1927 collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. ‘Men Without Women’ is also the title of the final, and by some distance the shortest, story. It is less a standalone story than an attempt to link the others: the narrator receives a phone call from the husband of a woman he once dated, informing him that she has committed suicide. This prompts, naturally, an onrush of memory, and then a reflection on the condition of being “men without women”. This state turns out to be one not of solitude but of a sentimental combination of nostalgia and fantasy: a sense of loss that romanticises itself.

For the narrator of Men Without Women , “losing one woman means losing all women”. While the other stories have men as their notional protagonists—and often, narrators—in every case it is a woman (or two women) who drives the action, and usually the emotional interest. The male protagonists themselves are either complacent and self-satisfied or feckless and emotionally repressed; it takes a woman to either quake their complacency or rouse them from stasis.

In ‘Drive My Car’, an ageing, widowed actor who is contemptuous of women drivers is compelled to hire one, and gradually opens up to her about his late wife’s infidelity. In ‘An Independent Organ’, a doctor who fancies himself an affectless womaniser is traumatised by the reality of falling in love.

Indicting men

In ‘Scheherazade’, a man who has been sent to a rural sanatorium is visited by a nurse who entertains him by alternating storytelling with sex. Someone reading Murakami for the first time might suspect misogyny, or at the least the objectification of women. But it is the men here who are under the real indictment. They see women as unknowable, and hence construct self-serving narratives of them. This, above all, is what it means to be men without women.

Even so, the perpetual contrast between the drably mundane men and the enigmatic women grows weary, as do the endless, not-quite-ironic descriptions of bosoms—“larger-than-average breasts”, “lovely breasts bouncing up and down”, “the marvellous breasts he used to lovingly stroke”—and sex scenes that read like a bad parody of Michel Houellebecq. Many of the stories are languid to the point of dullness.

The stories are rendered in English by two translators: four by Philip Gabriel and three by Ted Goossen. Both achieve Murakami’s familiar style with seamless consistency: the animal metaphors, the tendency to use more words than necessary, the easy access to cliché (“pregnant pause”, “at a loss for words”). As always, they use American English. For a writer so marked by American cultural influences, this is preferable to, say, a British idiom. But in this collection, the Americanisation is taken a little too far: “neat freak”, “straight-A student”, “one heck of a nice guy”, “Jeez, what a downer you are”. The translations, at their best, feel convincing in English but also retain a slight foreignness: this one, too often, reads like something written by an American who happens to have a Japanese name.

The two strongest stories here are those that escape from the men-without-women paradigm. Both feature compelling secondary male characters, and women with depth and life, rather than mystery.

‘Yesterday’, which reads like an ironic take on Norwegian Wood , features a narrator who has replaced his native Kansai dialect with a Tokyo accent; and his friend, a Tokyo native who, in a subversion of the norm, has adopted Kansai dialect so as to better identify with the Hanshin Tigers baseball team. And ‘Kino’ is a beautifully done account of the failure to reckon with romantic trauma; it is also a fine example, in a surprisingly earthbound collection, of Murakami’s surrealism.

Men Without Women: Stories; Haruki Murakami, trs Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker (Random House), ₹799.

The author is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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