The Hippo


Jun 29, 2017








Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami (Alfred A. Knopf, 228 pages)
Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen


 If you’ve never read any of Haruki Murakami’s novels, his new collection of short stories is an excellent introduction to the global literary phenomenon. In Tokyo, people wait outside bookstores for hours for his new releases, and then sit down and start reading right there when they get them.

Men Without Women possesses traits of a Murakami novel — the random cats, the Beatlemania, the everyman characters that prove mesmerizing once you power past the parts where they’re dull. For readers unsure of whether they’d like Murakami, this is your time. Like a blind date in the safe confines of lunch, it’s just stories. But a taste of Murakami’s unique voice might lead to more.
Murakami has one of the most famous backstories of contemporary writers. He decided one day at a baseball game that he, too, could write a novel, and within a couple of months he had done so – longhand, with a $5 fountain pen. (This story he tells in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.) Caring little about how it would be received, he sent the novel off to a contest without making a copy. It was months before he heard back that he had won. Now, millions of copies of his books sit on shelves across the world.
His latest title notwithstanding, Murakami is not a man without a woman; he’s been married for decades. Moreover, Men Without Women is a title he (or his publisher) stole from Ernest Hemingway, who published a book of short stories with that title in 1927. But Murakami often pays homage to writers he admires — most significantly in this new book, to that staple of high-school literature classes, Franz Kafka. 
“Samsa in Love” is a clever imagining of the morning that Gregor Samsa, of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” transitions from a cockroach to a human. Like the earlier change, the new Samsa struggles to cope with his new and strange form and with blinding hunger; he also has some bewildering challenges, such as the sudden need for clothes, and a curious terror of birds. 
Here is Samsa surveying his new body:  
“Smooth white skin (covered by only a perfunctory amount of hair) with fragile blue blood vessels visible through it; a soft, unprotected belly; ludicrous, impossibly shaped genitals; gangly arms and legs (just two of each!); a scrawny, breakable neck; an enormous, misshapen head with a tangle of stiff hair on its crown; two absurd ears, jutting out like a pair of seashells.”
Samsa is indeed a man without a woman, but he has the possibility of one: a hunchback who has apparently been summoned by his missing family to repair the mysteriously broken lock on the door to his room. He falls for her as she laboriously climbs the stairs to his room “much like a crawling insect.” As she leaves, he calls after her, “Look out for the birds.” It’s smart, fresh and fun.
In this and six other stories, the men do have women in their lives: women who drive them around, women who sell them bars, women who cheat on them with business associates, women who cheat with them; women with cigarette burns on their bodies; women who think they were jawless eels in another life.
But all of these men have a certain woman who haunts them in some way, and all were painfully singed when they joined the universal tribe of Men Without Women, described in the titular last chapter as a “relentlessly frigid plural” even when it occurs to a singular man.
As Murakami writes, “Only Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking, it is to become one. You lose that wonderful west wind. … The bottom of the sea, with the ammonites and coelacanths. Calling someone’s house past one a.m.  Getting a call after one a.m. from a stranger. Waiting for someone you don’t know somewhere between knowledge and ignorance. Tears falling on the dry road as you check the pressure of your tires.”
Were it not for the memorable characters and the sly wit (such as the man who badly translates Beatles lyrics into Japanese: “Yesterday/ Is two days before tomorrow”), the existential wailing could get old, particularly from the men whose own questionable actions resulted in the loss of their one true love. (The man whose adulterous affair leads to his own death, in particular, is hard to mourn.)
Murakami speaks English but writes in Japanese and does not translate his own work. As with any translated work, the reader has a vague sense of missing out on the original presentation, wondering if the elegant arrangement of words is truly the work of the author or of his translators. 
Whether it’s Murakami or his translators who are responsible for “the bloody weight of desire and the rusty anchors of remorse,” it’s remarkable writing, whether you’re a man without a woman, or a woman with a man. Believe the hype. A 
— Jennifer Graham 

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