In Shakespeare’s day all the world may indeed have been a stage. Today, however, it has become a film set, both metaphorically and literally. For better or for worse we now see with the camera’s eye. So imagine if you will a film with no leading man or woman, a film with no big names. One shot almost entirely in close-up. If Haruki Murakami made films instead of writing books, this is what such a film might look like. A film where the so-called extras, those people who make up the living backdrop of our cinematic lives, are captured in their most intimate moments and become, to our surprise, reflections of ourselves.
Murakami’s latest offering in English translation is a collection of new short stories titled Men Without Women. Written in the more subdued style of Murakami’s recent works such as Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, these tales have more to do with solitude and alienation than they do with gender, and reading them I could not help but think that they would make a great complement to Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Loneliness. If Svendsen helps one to understand loneliness cognitively, Murakami allows one to experience it affectively, giving it a slow, desperate pulse.
It is true that in many of the stories men do not understand women. What emerges, however, is that they understand themselves even less. Though able to work and survive in society, they are unwell. “How much pain did I suffer? How much pain did I go through? I wish there was a machine that could accurately measure sadness, and display it in numbers that you could record,” the narrator of the story from which the collection takes its name says. “And it would be great if that machine could fit in the palm of your hand. I think of this every time I measure the air in my tires.” As though assigning suffering a numerical value would somehow make it authentic.
It is not so much that desires go unfulfilled, but that desire itself has vanished. Logos has annihilated pathos, and many of these tales revolve around the characters’ attempts to resuscitate or to rediscover pathos in their lives. In its own way, each of the stories becomes a psychological and existential mystery.
In “Drive My Car”, a successful but minor actor, Kafuku, lives not only in the shadow of his wife’s death from cancer but also with the mystery of the numerous affairs she had while she was alive. He never confronted her about them, and now the question haunts him. “Kafuku hadn’t understood why she felt the need to sleep with other men. And still he didn’t,” as he confesses to his driver. In an endeavor to understand, he befriends one of her former lovers, but the most salient discoveries are always self-discoveries, and these his taciturn driver helps him to tease out.
Mr. Tokai, in the story “An Independent Organ”, begins as a most unlikely Murakami character in that he possesses no immediately discernable idiosyncrasy or eccentricity. One is reminded of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), where everything that takes place is uncannily, frighteningly straightforward. Suspiciously normal. But this changes midway through the story, when a casual affair conjures up in Mr. Tokai not only new emotions but concomitant questions of metaphysical import. One is reminded of philosopher Martin Heidegger when Mr. Tokai says, “If you took away my career as a plastic surgeon, and the happy environment I am living in, and threw me out into the world, with no explanation, and with everything stripped away — what in the world would I be?”
The existential awakenings the characters have, the revelations, are not usually absolute or melodramatic. Something that has always appealed to me about Murakami’s characters is that almost all of them are passive observers who never fully understand the world, others, themselves, even the bodies they inhabit. It is in this sense that they are so much like us all.
In the story “Yesterday”, a short friendship between two students thrown together working at a coffee shop is recalled with fondness commingled with nostalgia and regret.
When I look back at myself at age twenty, what I remember most is being alone and lonely. I had no girlfriend to warm my body or my soul, no friends I could open up to. No clue what I should do every day, no vision for the future. For the most part, I remained hidden away, deep within myself. Sometimes I’d go for a week without talking to anybody. That kind of life continued for a year. A long, long year. Whether this period was a cold winter that left valuable growth rings inside me, I can’t really say.
Almost the obverse of Albert Camus’ oft-quoted passage from his essay “Return to Tipasa”, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
In this collection, the price of beauty is often sadness as Murakami’s characters come to terms with the estrangement they feel from others and from themselves.
Surprisingly, the least appealing story is perhaps the most upbeat: Murakami’s revisiting of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, “Samsa in Love”. Here again, alienation is underscored by Gregor Samsa’s becoming human, his clumsy reacquaintance with a human body, as well as by his infatuation with a young hunchback woman who has braved the streets of an occupied Prague to service a broken door lock in the apartment where he lives. Samsa’s inability to control or even to fathom the erection her visit elicits is entertaining, even if the overall effect is not nearly as moving as with the other tales.
Thematically, “Samsa in Love” is in keeping with the rest of the collection, but the tone is markedly different, and this has nothing to do with the translation. Murakami continues to benefit from a history of superb translations by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. Ted Goossen replaces Rubin as co-translator of these stories, but the voice, syntax and style of the stories is consistent and seamless.
“Scheherazade”, the narrator tells us that “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart. No matter what sort of story it was, she made it special. Her voice, her timing, her pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, in the end, gave him precisely what he’d been seeking.”
This, one senses, is Murakami’s definition of good storytelling, and overall he succeeds wonderfully. Mysteries about lost loves become mysteries of the self which are ultimately transcended by the absurd mystery of existence. Divided from self and others, Murakami’s characters long to escape their clockwork lives and seek refuge in fantasy, storytelling, sex and even petty crime. They feel alone even when they are with others, though occasionally, for one fleeting but exquisite metaphysical moment, they manage to bridge the gulf that separates us all. Readers may find this book to be that bridge.