Men Without Women Review: Murakami’s Book Lays Bare the Male Heart
Loneliness, fractured selves, and a sense of alienation are perhaps the bedrock of contemporary life and, by extension, literature. It shows up in our daily living, our stories, our politics, and our social media frenzy. Try as we might, we don’t seem to know how to grapple with it.
And when it comes down to the battle of the sexes, men are no better off than women. This is the theme that binds Haruki Murakami’s latest book, Men Without Women. The short story collection – there are seven stories in all – revolve around men who try to come to terms with the fact that they are alone.
Murakami deftly conjures for us a world of men where they are as inconsequential as they are vulnerable and lost. His men don’t rule the world, nor do they fantasise about it. More significantly, as the title suggests, they are without women. There are plenty of women in the book, of course. As companions, lovers, perpetrators, or mere listeners. But the tales themselves are about men and told from the point of view of a man.
Women, no matter how intimate with the protagonists, remain elusive, mysterious figures in these stories. They bring love, joy, betrayal, pain, but always remain – in the core – just out of reach. The men struggle to define them, understand them, and thereby possess them. But in the end, they are not sure if they succeed.
Take the first story for instance. Drive My Car is based on a middle-aged actor named Kafuku, who desperately tries to understand what it is that made his beloved late wife cheat on him. Or Scheherazade, where the protagonist, Habara, grapples with the daily anxiety of losing a woman he sleeps with, but is really only attached to the stories she tells him.
What’s also interesting about these men is their self-consciousness. Whether it is the cuckolded Kino (Kino) or the nameless “second loneliest man in the world” (Men Without Women), they all recognise their ordinariness and failings.
Sex, too, is secondary. Murakami’s men seek it and enjoy it, but search for something more.
However, one story that quite distinctly stands out from the rest of the posse is ‘Gregor Samsa in Love’. A delightful inversion of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, this story is perhaps the only one in this collection where Murakami surrenders to an impulse of hope for new beginnings.
Men Without Women is significant for its journey into the male heart. Murakami has masterfully presented to us a world of lost, hurt, sore, trembling men who need as much understanding and compassion as the other sexes. It would be interesting to know what male readers make of this collection.
(Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, Rs 799)