Title: Men Without Women
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Random House, UK
Pages: 240, Price: Rs 478
Tonight I can write the saddest lines. Write, for example, the night is shattered and she is not with me.
That’s how Haruki Murakami might well have begun his new collection of short stories “Men Without Women” -taking inspiration from Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto or Pablo Neruda, as the world knows the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate (1971).
Or, he could well have called this book ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. (There is a book by that name by the masterly Raymond Carver, a title Murakami borrowed to write his book about his love for long-distance running, a memoir he titled ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.’)
But to return to his latest collection, it could be summed up in the following lines of that famous Neruda poem: ‘To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.’
Japanese literature has a long and glorious history. There have been such greats as Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima in modern times, to name two. Kawabata won the Literature Nobel in 1968, the first Japanese author to do so. His classic books, ‘Snow Country’ and ‘Beauty and Sadness’ (to name a couple) explore the man-woman relationship masterfully.
Well, Murakami is no Kawabata. In fact, when Murakami appeared on the scene, he looked more like a pop artist than a serious author. But, and this is curious, he is today considered as one of the world’s leading candidates for the Nobel. And ‘literary’ prizes he has won many.
Murakami has compared writing novels to planting a forest, a challenge; and writing short stories to planting a garden, a joy. His delight in writing this particular collection is so obvious that it’s as if you can touch that feeling of delight and eat it with your two hands: Yummy and spicy and tangy and salty and sweet. Yes, reading this book could almost give you sensory joy.
There are seven short stories in this collection. All are delightful. Let’s not tell you what the stories are, for in this book the journey is the destination. The joy of the book is in the way the stories have been conceived, and then in the way, they have been written.
Murakami has attempted different ways of telling stories in this collection.While ‘Scheherazade’ is an out-and-out attempt to tell a story the 1001-nights fashion, Murakami has attempted a Kafka in ‘Samsa in Love’. But he doesn’t succeed in pulling off a Kafka here. (As such, however, the story is darn good, both in ideation and in execution. Read it to know what love can be about — platonic or otherwise. Could it be both?)
The real Kafkaesque story and the best one in the collection is ‘An Independent Organ.’ It’s a sad story, the saddest of stories, a story so ruinously sad that I forget the protagonist’s name.But he could be any of us. And the signature ‘Men without Women’ is a long poem, a poem straight from the heart, from a bleeding heart, that is.
Murakami is known for his ‘weird’ ideas, for shunning literary gatherings. (He says he is a loner.) So, do we find traces of autobiography here in this collection? For, he did open an eatery once and then having paid off the debt (financial), one fine day found his calling. But it is useless to find the person in an author’s work. The work is all that matters. And one story here, ‘Drive My Car,’ is an actor who shuttles between the stage and the real world. And how the two mix. How the two affect one another.
It’s true that women give men a sense of direction, a purpose in life. They are the anchors for men in this mad journey called life. And life without a woman (after he loses her) can be a devastating experience for a man. That’s the message of the book and conveyed beautifully too.
Neruda once said about the great Julio Cortázar: “Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder, noticeably paler and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.”
This could easily be said about Murakami here. To which with typical modesty Murakami, I’m sure, would say, I don’t know about all that. All I know is “I no longer love her that’s certain but maybe I love her. Love is so short. Forgetting is so long.”