Brian Arsenault Takes On: “Men Without Women”

By Brian Arsenault

Haruki Murakami has been criticized in his home Japan for being too western a writer. And I suppose some western readers find him too Japanese in his syntax and sensibilities.
Readers of a certain age, though, at least will remember the principle of universality. Faulkner’s rural south could speak to a yankee about the human condition; Hemingway’s lost generation could find something we all know as truth or untruth; Dickens ragamuffin children could remind us about the dangers of welfare “reform” when hungry kids are involved.
We’ve all retreated into our own corners I fear, wanting only to be reinforced in terms of limited identity. Too bad in an age when great fiction is to be found at least in translation from throughout the world: Asia, India, Latin America, the Middle East. Shouldn’t it join us rather than separate our lives.
In seven stories, Murakami shines a light on the darkness of men losing women: through death, the passage of time, the loss of age 14 not only chronologically but in our soul, a simple walking out the door.
One is driven to truth by a woman he will never have.
Kafka’s Sansa awakens to find himself a bug no longer and desires a hunchback, no less a monster to most than he was when the changing of the lock was ordered. In wondrous black humor, Sansa warns her to look out for birds.
Kino runs from the anger toward an unfaithful wife until he can’t hide any longer; his last memory of her gorgeous breasts as she rides his former close colleague.
Don Juan in the person of Dr. Tokai suffers the fatal flaw of falling in love.
Scheherzade provokes love making “as never before. Violently, passionately and at length” with the story of burgling her teenage infatuation.
Murakami saves the best for last with a story the same title as the collection: “Men Without Women.”
A remarkable passage among many; as efficient as Hemingway and as lyrical as Joyce when he wanted to be lyrical.
That’s what it’s like to lose a woman. And at a certain time, losing one woman means losing all women. That’s how we become Men Without Women. . . And we lose her beautiful back. I used to rub M’s back with my palm to the soft triple beat of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.” Waiting round the bend, my Huckleberry friend. But all of that has vanished. All that remains is an old broken piece or eraser, and the far off sound of the sailor’s dirge. And the unicorn beside the fountain, his lonely horn aimed at the sky.
I don’t know how that reads in Japanese but in translated English it is marvelous.
Oh, and if like me you have always despised elevator music you may find yourself changing your mind. Context is everything.
Faithful readers of Murakami may only regret that there aren’t 14 stories, or even 40, instead of seven. For those new to him, this collection is a wonderful introduction to the sensibilities and surprises of Kafka on the Shore, The Elephant Vanishes and so much more. I envy your journey.


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