An en­ter­tain­ing icon­o­clast

Whether Haruki Mu­rakami is a great writer might re­main in dis­pute. But ab­so­lutely in­dis­putably, he’s an en­joy­able, clever (and some­times haunt­ing) one.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by MARTIN SPICE

I HAVE read lit­er­ally hun­dreds of thou­sands of words writ­ten by Haruki Mu­rakami. I may not have read ev­ery­thing he has writ­ten but I have read most of it, and writ­ten about a fair pro­por­tion of it. And yet the man and his work re­main some­thing of an enigma to me.

I have heard him called a ma­gi­cian and I un­der­stand where that comes from – Mu­rakami has the weird abil­ity to con­jure some­thing out of noth­ing, to be pro­found while be­ing ba­nal, to un­lock truth through cliche and to cre­ate fan­tas­ti­cal worlds out of the ev­ery­day.

Long af­ter I have for­got­ten the de­tail of his plots, I re­mem­ber a telling im­age or, even more vividly, an at­mos­phere and a feel­ing. And nag­ging away in the back­ground is the ques­tion of whether he is a great writer or just a pop­u­lar one, and whether those two ap­par­ently an­ti­thet­i­cal ideas are re­ally an­ti­thet­i­cal or just made so by lit­er­ary crit­ics.

Any res­o­lu­tion of th­ese and other is­sues I might have hoped for by read­ing Men With­out Women, his lat­est col­lec­tion of seven short sto­ries, was al­ways doomed to fail. And so it proved.

Within the cre­ative writ­ing world there is a sort of or­tho­doxy. Point of view must be con­sis­tent; in the short story every word must count; ad­verbs must be es­chewed, etc. Go on any cre­ative writ­ing course and you will rapidly dis­cover what I mean.

And Mu­rakami, with the con­tempt that only a mas­sively pop­u­lar, skilled, and bril­liant writer can com­mand, knocks them all fly­ing. Point of view shifts all over the place, whole sec­tions of sto­ries are over­writ­ten by re­peat­ing the same thing in sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways, and no­body is go­ing to tell Mu­rakami or his won­der­ful trans­la­tors what vo­cab­u­lary he can or can’t use. And you know what? The sto­ries are still grip­ping, thought-pro­vok­ing, ele­gant, poignant, and mem­o­rable. Which must go to prove some­thing.

Mu­rakami lovers, and there are mil­lions world­wide, will find them­selves in very fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory here. Ob­vi­ously the con­nect­ing theme of the sto­ries is men with­out women but the ma­jor­ity take place in set­tings that will stir mem­o­ries of pre­vi­ous nov­els.

Think Mu­rakami and you may well think of lonely char­ac­ters, fre­quently sit­ting in bars, lis­ten­ing to jazz while in a one-to-one con­ver­sa­tion about an ab­sent third.

In “Drive My Car”, the first story in the col­lec­tion, “the two were drink­ing in Aoyama at a small non­de­script bar tucked away in a nar­row lane be­hind the Nezu Mu­seum. The bar­tender was a quiet man of about forty, and a skinny gray cat was curled up on a dis­play shelf in a cor­ner of the .... room An old jazz record was

turntable...”. spin­ning on the In this case, the dis­cus­sion is about the cen­tral char­ac­ter’s dead wife, and there is a twist: she was un­faith­ful and the pro­tag­o­nist has be­friended her lover with­out mak­ing him aware that he knows of their clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship.

In a story en­ti­tled “Kino”, the epony­mous hero has re­signed from his job as a sports shoe sales­man af­ter dis­cov­er­ing the in­fi­delity of his wife. “The be­trayal had been a shock, for sure, but, as time passed, he be­gan to feel as if it couldn’t have been helped, as if this had been his fate all along.”

He opens a bar and waits for cus­tomers, mean­while read­ing his books and play­ing his favourite jazz records. He finds sta­bil­ity of sorts: “The most he could do was cre­ate a place where his heart – de­void now of any depth or weight – could be teth­ered, to keep it from wandering aim­lessly.”

Ah, the aim­less wandering of the heart – an­other Mu­rakami sig­na­ture.

That a num­ber of th­ese sto­ries are set, or partly set, in fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings pro­vides link­age rather than rep­e­ti­tion or du­pli­ca­tion. In fact, there is a wide cast of char­ac­ters here: an ac­tor and a chauf­feur, in “Drive My Car” (one of two Bea­tles ref­er­ences here); a cos­metic plas­tic sur­geon in “An In­de­pen­dent Or­gan”; a house­keeper/sto­ry­teller in “Scheherazade”; an ec­cen­tric stu­dent who be­comes flu­ent in an ob­scure di­alect not his own in “Yes­ter­day” (the se­cond Bea­tles ref­er­ence); and a de­cid­edly orig­i­nal ver­sion of Kafka’s “Meta­mor­pho­sis”. And be­ing Mu­rakami, every story comes com­plete with its un­ex­pected de­vel­op­ments and twists that take it far away from the over-fa­mil­iar.

By his choice of ti­tle, Men With­out Women, Mu­rakami in­evitably in­vites com­par­i­son with the 1927 Ernest Hem­ing­way col­lec­tion of the same name; by in­vert­ing Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis so that his pro­tag­o­nist wakes as Gre­gor Samsa he in­vites com­par­i­son with one of the most fa­mous sto­ries of all time.

You could ar­gue that th­ese are dan­ger­ous waters and I have no in­ten­tion, as I said at the be­gin­ning, of swimming in them. A pop­u­lar writer? In­dis­putably. A great one? Maybe. But ab­so­lutely def­i­nitely: en­joy­able, clever, melan­cholic, hu­mor­ous, in­ven­tive, en­ter­tain­ing and haunt­ing. That will cer­tainly do me for a start – and it will also do for mil­lions of oth­ers.

Au­thor: Haruki Mu­rakami Pub­lisher: Alfred A. Knopf Men With­out Women

Photo: AFP

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