Haruki Murakami
Men without Women

Murakami’s fiction is instantly recognisable. There is usually a central enigma, cats, a missing person, a strange woman, surreal or playful events, Western pop cultural references, and long dialogues between characters who share their life stories with weird candour.

The stories in Men without Women are quintessential Murakami. In “Scheherazade”, a man named Habara, mysteriously confined to home, receives regular visits from a woman known as Scheherazade, after the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. She supplies him with essentials: food, sex, stories. Scheherazade recounts a teenage period of breaking into a beloved’s home, where she left traces of herself – including an unused tampon – in exchange for taking his things. During the uncannily peaceful times as a trespasser in her beloved’s empty house, she remembers her former life as a lamprey eel and what it was like to be in utero. When she leaves him, Habara writes Scheherazade’s stories in his diary.

In “Kino”, a man finds his wife in bed with his best friend. He simply walks out, bringing about a composed end to the marriage and becoming, like many characters in these stories, a man without a woman. He opens a bar, at which a cat and an enigmatic man become regulars. He has sex with a female customer who has a partner and whose body is covered in cigarette burns. After snakes begin appearing, he leaves town and goes missing. Indeed, the ending suggests he has been missing to himself and others all along.

A successful plastic surgeon and committed womaniser falls in love for the first time in “An Independent Organ”. His love is not reciprocated and, not having “developed love antibodies” earlier in life, he begins to waste away. The story suggests that an “organ” for lies or self-deception informs Dr Tokai’s consuming love. Yet, paradoxically, it also makes his life serious, redeeming it from being “a series of contrivances”. That theme is continued in the stand-out story, “Samsa in Love”, in which the Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s famous novella wakes to “discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa”. What follows is a brilliant defamiliarisation of the human condition, as Samsa, much like Frankenstein’s monster, learns to be human, including falling in love with a hunchback woman who arrives to fix a broken lock at his house.

These stories mesmerise and resonate, as Murakami’s fiction always does.  KN

Harvill Secker, 256pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Haruki Murakami, Men without Women ".

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Reviewer: KN