Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami review a quiet panic

There are shades of Hemingway in these stories about men who choose loneliness in the avoidance of pain

A quiet panic afflicts the male characters in Hemingways 1927collection Men Without Women, thattouchstone in the development of both Hemingwayism and the short story. Men should never put themselves in the position where they can lose someone, a bereaved Italian soldier warns Hemingways long-running protagonist Nick Adams: instead, a man should find things he cannot lose. Ninety years later, Haruki Murakamis men without women have come to the same conclusion, polishing it into a postmodern lifestyle.

Kafuko, a middle-aged character actor, used to be married. Throughout their life together, his wife had affairs, but he loved her, and though it was painful his heart was torn and his insides were bleeding he never dared ask her what deficiency she was tryng to make up for in their relationship; now its too late. In another story, jazz fan Kino blunders in on his wife having sex with his best friend and, apparently more embarrassed than wounded, decides to begin life again asa bar owner in another part of town. He equips the perfect establishment, then sits in it playing his favourite albums and waiting for his first customer, apolicy guaranteed to draw inspirits as unquietly defeated ashimself.

By the end of the title story, its narrator has concluded, in appropriately Hemingwayesque fashion, that when you lose one woman, you lose them all: you become, somehow, the representative of the category men without women, alone but not singular. To be trapped by that relentlessly rigid plural is to live at the heart of loneliness. But something about this rhetorical sleight of hand reveals loneliness as a coping strategy in itself. Kafuko the actor, for instance, performs his way into his exchanges with others, taking on the qualities of the person he needs to be in the situation hes in but he learned the technique in childhood, long before he got into the profession, long before his wife died. Why dont you have any friends? his new driver asks him one day, in a traffic jam on the Tokyo metropolitan expressway. Its an interesting question.

Theres a dialled-down quality to these men. Their exchanges with other people are limited to bedrooms and bars. They have one eccentricity each: they care about reading or cooking or the history of popular music. Murakami Man, we begin to see, has no friends because, in the pursuit of convenience and emotional self-protection, in proofing himself against grief, he chose distance. He chose loneliness long before he experienced loss. As a result, he is unable to take advantage of the predictable life he has been at such pains to organise. If he fails to connect with others, he fails, equally, to connect with himself.

Devotees will find plenty of signature Murakami here, in the empty, almost Lynchian interiors of Kino, the weird psychic landscape of the narrator of Men Without Women, the troubled Prague of Samsa in Love. Youre never quite sure about the storys boundaries sometimes you arent even sure its begun. Murakami never tells it until hes ready, and that may take pages of careful preparation. Hes as fascinated as his specimens by the complex layers of social geology in which theyre to be found embedded, so thats where he begins. Its up to thereader to work outwhy.

In Yesterday, Tanimura, who is from Kansai, divests himself so completely from the Kansai dialect that no one in Tokyo can believe he comes from there; while his friend Kitaru, in the attempt to become aserious supporter of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, submerges himself in the Kansai dialect to the point where he seems to have been born there. Meanwhile, the narrator of An Independent Organ is teasing us: Im sure youll understand that the veracity of each tiny detail really isnt critical. All that matters, surely, is that a clear portrait should emerge.

The authorial voice is as subtle as the tease, unassumingly ironic enough to avoid the banality it explores: it calmly reveals the passive self-repression or puncturable egotism of the men. Murakamis women are a different matter. Their capacities seem to fall halfway between motherly and male: they are gruff caregivers. Misaki the chauffeur in Drive My Car speaks bluntly, wears a mans herringbone jacket and drives with a minimum of wasted effort. In Scheherazade, the eponymous storyteller is a housewife from a provincial city: her businesslike sexual manners remind the hero that shes a trained nurse.

Tale by tale, the different women unassuaged, and who can blame them move off to the peripheries. The men apologise for themselves and are content to drift, remaining puzzled as much by their own behaviour as anyone elses. Their stories are never less than readable, comic, amiably fantastic, human, yet with an entertainingly sarcastic edge, but verge on the bland. Unlike Hemingways Italian soldier, they cant pinpoint the moment their lives went wrong; they barely remember their previous condition and not well enough to describe it. Have they learned anything from experience? They say so. Were left wondering if thats true, or if, like Kino the barman, theyre really courting self-erasure.

M John Harrisons short story collection You Should Come With Me Now will be published by Comma later this year. Men Without Women is published by Harvill Secker. To order a copy for 14.44 (RRP 16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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