Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Murakami's best short fiction collection to date

Men Without Women: Stories

Haruki Murakami


Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

To begin this review, I would like to feature a quote from one of Haruki Murakami's earlier novels, South of the Border, West of the Sun...
"Rain falls and the flowers bloom. No rain, they wither up. Bugs are eaten by the lizards, lizards are eaten by the birds. But in the end, every one of them dies. They die and dry up. One generation dies and the next one takes over. That's how it goes. Lots of different ways to live. And lots of different ways to die But in the end that doesn't make a bit of difference. All that remains in a desert."

Life is basically a desert, Murakami muses. But Murakami sees oases occasionally springing up that gives us some meaning if to only ourselves. Sometimes they are mirages but even mirages leaves memories. I believe he sees that hint of meaning mainly in relationships, especially the relationship between man and woman.

In Men without Women: Stories, Murakami's superlative thematic short fiction collection, we are introduced to men who are alone for different reasons in their lives. Some unintentionally and some by design. Some are divorced and some are widowed, and some never really found that oasis. Even when they do, it may be fraught with mystery and pitfalls. Each tale features a man who is either telling his story, or relating one of another, and ruminating over the haunting encounter,. These are tales that may seem simplistic but derives meaning from their relation to our own lives and struggle. Each of the seven pieces of fiction are excellent examples of storytelling and psychological drama of the most subtle kind. With the exception of one, maybe two, there is none of the author's magical realism and their points may fly by the reader only to be caught after the reading is well contemplated.

"Drive My Car" is about an actor who hired a female driver to transport him around the city. His wife has passed away and it first appears like the plot will focus on the man's relationship with his driver. But that soon changes as he tells his driver about his wife, her affairs and his attempt to discover why she had affairs when he maneuvers a friendship with one of her ex-lovers. It is a good example how Murakami can make strong emotions and regrets almost conversationally reflective.

In "Yesterday", Kitaru suggests that his friend Tanimura go out with his girl friend. It is Kitaru's strange solution to his concern that Tanimura has not had a girlfriend in a long time. Again, what would go off in one way for the conventional writer ends up in a study of Kitaru rather than the bewildered and slightly hapless Tanimura. The end reflects a common ploy in much of Murakami's works in that the resolution of the story comes with a reunion of the characters many years in the future when distances reveals meaning.

"An independent Organ" is another tale where the main narrator is telling the story of a Dr. Tokai, one of those individuals whose relationship with women is constructed in affairs and brief encounters. Tokai is a bit of a suave scoundrel who finally falls in love with tragic consequences. It is the most beautiful tale of the collection in my opinion.

"Scheherazade" is about a man who cannot go outside for reasons that are not made clear. He is given a "helper" who becomes his lover and tells him stories after their lovemaking. In typical Murakami style, her stories become sort of a confession that give insight to both the teller and the listener.

Is "Kino" magical realism? I'm not really sure. This story about a man who opens a bar and gets a odd regular is rather mysterious. The woman/man connection is very vague here mostly referring to how Kino finds a purpose after the end of his marriage. It is also the only story in which a cat plays a role. This may be a strange thing to say if you haven't read much Murakami. The Murakami fans will know what I am talking about.

"Samsa in Love" is a play on Kafka as an insect wakes up and find himself transformed into Gregor Samsa. The transformation seems rather pointless to the new Samsa. Then he meets a woman...

the collection ends with the title story. It is fitting it is the last tale as it brings the rest together. A man receives a call from another man to tell him a former girl friend from years before died. Then he abruptly hangs up. Our narrator has not seen this woman, she was not married at the time of their friendship, and he never knew the man who called. It turns into a reminiscence about chance encounter and wraps up the tragedy of having little control over those who have the most meaning for us...

"It's quite easy to become Men Without Women. You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere.That's all it takes. Most of the time (as I'm sure you are well aware) it's crafty sailors who take them away. They sweet-talk them into going with them, then carry them away to Marseilles or the Ivory Coast. And there's hardly anything we can do about it. Or else the women have nothing to do with sailors, and take their own lives. And there's very little we can do about that too. Not even the sailors can do a thing"

Men Without Women may be Murakami's best short fiction collection to date. It reads quickly but is deceptive in how much is going on within these well crafted tales. Even though I find his novels to be the real meat of his writings, I do not hesitate to recommend this collection as one's first journey into Murakami's world. it's that good.

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