Saturday, 23 September 2017

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami – review – The Guardian


Curiosity, in Murakami’s supremely enjoyable, philosophical and pitch-perfect new collection of short stories – his first for more than a decade – is what motivates many of his characters. Their curiosity becomes ours and propels each narrative onwards. But curiosity is shown to be complicated. Is it healthy, necessary, wise? Or does it kill the cat? In the first story, Drive My Car (Murakami’s Beatlemania has outlasted the success of his bestselling novel Norwegian Wood), curiosity is in every sense a driving force. A veteran actor and widower is obliged to hire a chauffeur for his ancient yellow Saab 900 convertible (Murakami always supplies manufacturing details of his characters’ cars). Kafuku has been banned from driving after a scrape in which he was found to have been drinking, and his theatre company is now paying for his transport during a run of Uncle Vanya. He is compelled therefore to put himself in the competent hands of a plain chauffeur, a woman with ears “like satellite dishes placed in some remote landscape” (the glee with which Murakami alights on such similes is infectious).

Kafuku uses his time in the car to run through his lines en route to the theatre until his almost wordless chauffeur starts, in due course, to be curious. She wants to know why he appears to have no friends. He confesses to her that he manufactured a friendship with one of his late wife’s lovers – a pleasant, fortysomething actor. They became drinking buddies. He and his wife never discussed her infidelities and Murakami shows how the widower’s curiosity becomes at once a torment, a way of posthumously attempting to gain power over his rival and an illicit bid to acquire pointless new knowledge. He brilliantly conveys Kafuku’s dignity, vulnerability and the futility of this overdue attempt to rebalance his life. Kafuku will also turn out to have a double blindspot as a driver and as a spouse – a nice piece of engineering on Murakami’s part. The story is a masterpiece of pacing and steadily revelatory: a sad, amusing, stately portrait of a marriage that the reader can enjoy unwrapping as if it were a gift. Not long before the end, the chauffeur offers her passenger a line of potentially consoling truth, speculating – in answer to his questioning – about the reason his wife might have been unfaithful. She raises the possibility that it was never about love at all. In each of the stories, there are key lines of this sort – casual pearls.

“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s not easy to look for it,” says a young man to a friend in another wonderful moment of across-a-restaurant-table philosophising. An apparently simple thought but complicated in the living. Yesterday (a second salute to the Beatles) is also about the need to know and the attempt to achieve intimacy through a third party. Kitaru, a student who keeps failing his college entrance exams, feels he is not yet worthy to be the boyfriend of his smart childhood sweetheart, Erika. He urges a new acquaintance (the story’s narrator) to go out with her, reasoning: “I figure, if she’s gonna go out with other guys, it’s better if it’s you. ’Cause I know you. And you can gimme, like, updates and stuff.” Kitaru, like Kafuku, wants to satisfy his curiosity vicariously. The implied question here and in other stories: is sexual knowledge, no matter how it is acquired, power? Murakami explores not voyeurism exactly, more a bodiless sexuality, a filtered passion.

The mix of humour and melancholy in Murakami’s writing is extraordinary. One never wrong-foots the other and the stories have been outstandingly translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen with fluent, colloquial grace. Murakami has a marvellous understanding of youth and age – and the failings of each. Youthful Kitaru is a cartoon presence in some ways. He has a refined appearance but, as soon as he starts to speak, his perceived delicacy collapses “like a sand castle under an exuberant labrador retriever”. These images are delightful (like the earlier satellite dish ears) but sparingly used: there is no surplus flesh on Murakami’s narrative bones.

Not all the stories are about “men without women”. Scheherazade – a powerful, eccentric tale – centres on a middle-aged woman, who has earned the titular nickname. A superb storyteller, she tells tales to Habara, the man for whom she is housekeeping and also sleeping with. Many of Murakami’s stories hinge on a relationship in which one person is curious about another, and here Scheherazade tells a tale in which a clandestine bid for intimacy is again the subject. She recalls herself, as a teenager, breaking into the house of a schoolboy (a boy with no interest in her) and infatuatedly accumulating information about him. The comedy of the story is in the contrast between his dull, unrevealing teenager’s bedroom and the heady, adrenaline-fuelled eroticism of her breaking and entering.

As the collection progresses, the stories become darker and more existential. In An Independent Organ, we meet Dr Tokai – confirmed bachelor, nifty cook and cosmetic plastic surgeon who runs the Tokai beauty clinic. This story is at once a quiet entertainment and a tragedy. Dr Tokai never married but is in the habit of having affairs and is usually willing to overlook physical imperfections in his lovers: “As long as there wasn’t some major flaw that aroused his professional interest.” Murakami writes about the doctor with an undeceived twinkle in the eye – an approach that is, perhaps, a Japanese first cousin to cynicism.

When Dr Tokai falls unexpectedly in love it is a nuisance that turns into a calamity. Murakami is measured in describing love as beyond us and as the making and unmaking of us. There are double-takes in his stories – he relishes the tragicomic. He at once feels for Dr Tokai and mocks his plight. He is dispassionate, unsentimental and amused. Dr Tokai loses it completely and starts slinging chairs, a television, books, dishes and framed pictures out of his flat, exclaiming: “I don’t care if they hit a pedestrian on the head and kill him.” The doctor’s violence is absurd and he asks desperately: “Who in the world am I?” The need to answer this question takes hold of him like a fever. And we have to consider the possibility that curiosity – even with magnificent and merciful Murakami behind the wheel – might prove fatal.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99



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