haruki murakami men without women book review

Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami: Book Review

Haruki Murakami
Men Without Women Book Cover Men Without Women
Haurki Murakami
Short Stories,
Knopf
May 9, 2017
240

Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all.

I started Men Without Women with the intention of finishing all seven short stories in a single sitting. Not only was I incredibly excited about a new release from Haruki Murakami, but there’s something about short stories that make them easy to read. Pair the medium of a short story with Murakami, and it becomes even easier.

Despite the ease with which I could have finished this collection, I found Men Without Women to be so enjoyable that I stopped reading on purpose. I wanted it to last longer, so I ended up reading a story or two every few days.

Men Without Women was an incredibly delightful read, where each story managed to capture a different part of Murakami’s style. Each and every story has something unique about it, but in the end, the underlying themes of loneliness and identity tie all seven of the short stories together. From mysterious characters to detailed music lessons, and even the occasional cat, Men Without Women has all of Murakami’s literary trademarks.

This review contains spoilers and quotes from the book.

Across seven tales, Murakami explores relationships and the inevitable feelings of loneliness and loss that come with them. That’s not to say that every short story in this collection is sad. In fact, the opposite is true. Although there are times that are, indeed, depressing, each and every story in this collection has an element of whimsy that sets it apart from the others.

It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women. You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere.

— excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women

‘Somewhere’ means something different in each of these stories. While many of the short stories feature relationships that take place as the result of an affair in some way or another, whether it be a single man sleeping with a married woman, or a man finding himself to be the husband that is left behind, the same is not true for every story. A few stories feature death, while some feature the innocence of falling in love for the first time. Regardless, every story features a notable relationship that has impacted a man in some way. Despite the pain that often times lingers throughout these stories as a result of the loss of the woman in question, the men in these stories find themselves remembering them fondly, with love and longing.

While each story is wonderful in its own way, three stories, in particular, stood out: “Yesterday,” “Kino” and “Samsa in Love.”

The second story in Men Without Women, “Yesterday” is one story that stands out as a representation of different aspects of Japanese culture. Beginning with translated lyrics from the popular Beatles song, the short story goes into a conversation about the intricacies of the Japanese language. Murakami goes into the details about just how different dialects are in Japanese – something that is often lost in translation, especially for those who do not speak the language.

Furthermore, the short story opens with a discussion on how difficult the act of translation is, depending on what is being translated. I was immediately reminded of my second year of Japanese in college, where my professor at the time (a huge Beatles fan), made us translate lyrics from multiple Beatles songs, which proved to be an exercise in futility. It’s damn near impossible to do – and it’s something that Murakami touches on in “Yesterday”.

Japanese culture shines in “Yesterday” in a number of other aspects as well, including the influence and importance of baseball in Japanese society, along with the hell that is college entrance exams. Comments about Japanese society are casually thrown into the story, which unfolds in a rather unexpected way.

As far as the plot of “Yesterday” goes, the story covers young love. Even though the relationship between the two main love interests, Kitaru and Erika, doesn’t work out, the narrator finds that he still remembers all of the details about his former close friend (who disappeared without warning) and his girlfriend, thanks to the power of memory and music.

Music has that power to revive memories, sometimes so intensely that they hurt.

— excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women

In Murakami’s typical fashion, the stories vary from somewhat normal everyday occurrences to strange acts of magical realism. While some short stories in the collection are rather normal, such as “Drive My Car” and “Yesterday”, they slowly begin to embody aspects of magical realism that push them over the edge, while remaining believable, which can be seen clearly in “Kino” and “Samsa in Love”.

Things get so strange, in fact, that I found myself reading a few of the stories in horror. While nothing incredibly out of the ordinary happens (for the most part), Murakami’s writing takes on a new edge reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, along with his Japanese equivalent, Edogawa Ranpo.

“Kino” begins as an everyday story about a man, who has learned that his wife has been cheating on him while he has been away on business. Although you feel for Kino, there’s nothing inherently off about the story (at first). After discovering his wife with another man, Kino leaves, and through the help of his aunt, he opens up a backstreet bar.

Business is slow, bringing in only a few customers thanks to the help of a stray cat that has taken a liking to the bar. Full of strange and mysterious characters, including a quiet man named Kamita and a businesswoman who remains unnamed, but has a few dark secrets, “Kino” slowly shifts from a normal story into something much darker.

Underneath a pleasant exterior, it slowly becomes apparently that the short story is about abuse, pain, and loss. Shortly after an encounter in which Kino ends up sleeping with a woman who occasionally frequents the bar, the tone becomes darker, yet hauntingly beautiful, as Kino is made aware of the fact that the woman is being abused by her boyfriend:

Just below her white bra clasp, he saw an irregular sprinkling of marks the color of faded charcoal, like bruises. They reminded him of constellations in the winter sky. A dark row of depleted stars.

— excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women

Shortly after their brief romantic encounter, mysterious things begin to happen around Kino. The cat that once frequented the bar disappears; three different types of snakes appear just outside the bar in less than a week, and Kino receives a warning, urging him to leave, from Kamita.

Although full of ambiguity, Kino decides to leave for a while. However, he finds he cannot escape his inner turmoil – the pain and loneliness that have been hiding in the depths of his heart since his wife left him. As Kino moves from hotel to hotel, he finds it harder and harder to leave. The tone of the story becomes much darker and the reader is filled with a sense of dread and horror as his internal fears manifest in his surroundings, in a way that that is very reminiscent of Poe.

Murakami’s magical realistic nature is explored to the fullest in “Samsa in Love”, which takes the grotesque and transforms it into something that is delightfully whimsical. In an alternate retelling of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, instead of a man named Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself in the body of an insect, Murakami’s Samsa wakes up to find that he is no longer an insect, but a human.

Playing on Kafka’s work, Murakami tells a new story of Gregor Samsa, one in which he slowly comes to terms with the unfamiliar human world. In a light-hearted story, Murakami follows Samsa’s everyday actions as he learns how to walk on two legs and communicate with others. As he slowly begins to learn more about human conventions, such as eating with a fork and knife and wearing clothes, he initially detests his transformation.

Slowly, however, Samsa finds himself becoming more acquainted with life as a human being. After waking up from a nap, Samsa finds himself face to face with a young woman, who has come to repair a lock. As he learns more about her, he becomes increasingly interested in the human world as he begins to fall in love.

Just thinking about her made him warm inside. No longer did he wish to be a fish or a sunflower – or anything else, for that matter. For sure, it was a great inconvenience to have to walk on two legs and wear clothes and eat with a knife and fork. There were so many things he didn’t know. Yet had he been a fish or a sunflower, and not a human being, he might never have experienced this emotion.

— excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women

“Samsa in Love” shows just how powerful and necessary emotions are in our lives. Love, in particular, is a feeling that has the power to change how our minds work in a beautiful, and sometimes painful, way.

All in all, Men Without Women is a great representation of what Murakami is capable of. In just seven stories, Murakami manages to convey so many different feelings and emotions, while touching on aspects of Japanese culture in the process. Even if you don’t like every story in this rather small collection, I can guarantee that you will like at least one of them and that in itself, is more than enough of a reason to pick up Murakami’s latest work.


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Melissa Ratcliff
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.