Sunday, 18 June 2017

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami     {Reviewed by STELLA}
Reading this collection of short stories is like watching a movie through a smeared lens, or like trying to listen to a conversation on the other side of a double-glazed window but being able to catch only fragments because there’s a party going on in the room you are in. My initial reaction to these stories made me think of peering down a jar made of thick glass – it’s all a bit opaque. Yet these are far from wishy-washy stories – they are precise, well-paced and ingenious. The reader is held at the exact point that keeps one moving on with increasing curiosity through this collection. Men Without Women is a wonderful observation of loneliness, of choosing aloneness over the pain of closeness. The men in Murakami’s stories often remain elusive, sometimes somewhat bland or hidden, avoiding pain or the risk of pain or disappointment, they make sure their connections with women are tenuous or remote. Despite this, Murakami cleverly draws you in - you have an emotional investment in these men’s tales. Loneliness and avoidance, along with reinvention are themes that run through the stories. The conversations that reveal the men’s relationship dilemmas are played out to the reader through an oblique association or a retelling by a third person, so the reader becomes an observer, a listener, nodding or shaking his/her head in agreement or surprise and always reading on, hankering for a bit more information. The reader is curious, and it is that same sense of curiosity that drives the actions of some of these men also. In the opening story, 'Drive My Car', Kafuku, a theatre actor, must find himself a chauffeur. His mechanic advises him to seek out a taciturn young woman, Misaki, who, it turns out, has the knack of listening well and asking the 'cut to the chase' questions that disarm Kafuku. He finds himself revealing his friendship with his (now deceased) wife's lover. His wife, he reveals, had often taken lovers and, out of curiosity, he strikes up a friendship with last of these after her death. During her lifetime, he had never queried her infidelities, preferring to imagine them not so, to accept her need for others, but as a widower he becomes curious and feels compelled to seek answers, answers that will reveal more about himself than about his wife’s behaviour. In 'Yesterday', a young man is avoiding everything like nothing else: avoiding his feelings, changing his history (he takes on a different dialect just to be different from everyone else), purposely failing his entrance exam, suggesting that his girlfriend date his most recent friend, our narrator of this tale. He’s avoiding what he sees as his pre-ordained life or a relationship that to anyone else makes perfect sense. His story is told through his new friend – a friendship that turns out to be fleeting in many ways, a vehicle only for an escape from connecting in any meaningful way with a young woman he has known most of his life. These tragi-comic stories have all the hallmarks of Murakami’s writing: fascinating observations, clever reflections that reference popular culture, a sense of the unusual in the usual humdrum of everyday existence, and characters that in isolation seem insignificant yet you can’t quite keep the whole cast from sneaking into your subconscious, and Dr.Tokai’s plea to another, “Who in the world am I?” in the haunting story 'An Independent Organ' from resonating well after you have shut the book.

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