I started reading Men Without Women in May 2017, the month it was published in English. At the time, I was going through a very difficult break-up. I finally finished the book this week, almost two years later, and feel I am still going through that break-up.
I moved home that May, after a two-month period of couch surfing, which is why Men Without Women was adjourned for a while. I had a lot to get in order and never got around to picking it up again. Until now, of course. Some other notable things happened that month. I experienced perhaps the loneliest birthday of my life so far, and that May was the last time I ever heard from my ex-girlfriend.
In many ways, this book epitomised and still epitomises my situation. I’m kind of glad that I put it off for a while. I started it fresh into a new era of loneliness, and finished it well accustomed to the world of Men Without Women. The contents were a familiar palate, to me perhaps more so than any other Murakami, but as is usual, the author warps the distressing and the depressing into beautiful tales, both enlightening and inspiring. Reading Men Without Women welled up many sad memories, but Murakami’s prose helped shed a fresh, invigorating light on what has been a dark period of my life.
As I have done before on this blog, I compiled a list of quotes as I read through Murakami’s new book. These excerpts are all passages that I am particularly fond of and cover all seven of the short stories in the collection, though some feature more than others. They’re collected from the 240-page hardback published by Harvill Secker, with translations by Murakami regulars Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen. I hope you’ll find the prose as interesting and illuminating as I do.
Drive My Car
While he didn’t dislike talking to people he knew well about things that mattered, he otherwise preferred to remain silent.
He regretted that he had not summoned his resolve while she was still alive to question her about her affairs. It was a regret that visited him frequently. He had been oh-so-close to asking her. He would have said, What were you looking for in those other men? What did you find lacking in me? But it had been mere months before the end, and she was suffering terribly as she struggled against her approaching death. He didn’t have the heart to demand an answer. Then, without a word of explanation, she had vanished from Kafuku’s world. The question never ventured, the answer never proffered. He was lost in those thoughts at the crematorium as he plucked her bones from the ashes. So lost that when someone whispered in his ear, Kafuku did not hear him.
In every situation, knowledge was better than ignorance. However agonizing, it was necessary to confront the facts. Only through knowing could a person become strong.
Words, they felt, could only cheapen the emotions they were feeling.
“You loved being someone other than yourself?”
“Yes, as long as I knew I could go back.”
“Did you ever not want to go back?”
“Relationships between people, especially between men and women, operate on — what should I say — a more general level. More vague, more self-centered, more pathetic.”
He was struck by how easy it was to read Takatsuki’s emotions. The man was transparent — if he looked into his eyes long enough, Kafuku thought, he could probably see the wall behind him. There was nothing warped, nothing nasty. Hardly the type to dig a deep hole at night and wait for someone to fall in.
He doubted the dead could think or feel anything. In his opinion, that was one of the great things about dying.
“Can any of us ever perfectly understand another person? However much we may love them?”
“The proposition that we can look into another person’s heart with perfect clarity strikes me as a fool’s game. I don’t care how well we think we should understand them, or how much we love them. All it can do is cause us pain. Examining your own heart, however, is another matter. I think it’s possible to see what’s in there if you work hard enough at it. So in the end maybe that’s the challenge: to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.”
They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.
Yet on this day, that thought did not suffocate him. Instead, his reaction was, yes, such things do happen. They do happen. After all, it’s just a matter of flesh and blood. No more than a pile of bone and ash in the end, right? There has to be something more important than that.
When I moved from Kansai to Toyko to start college, I spent the whole bullet-train ride mentally reviewing my eighteen years and realized that almost everything that had happened to me was pretty embarrassing. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t want to remember any of it — it was so pathetic. The more I thought about my life up to then, the more I hated myself.
Not being able to find the right words at crucial times is one of my many problems.
I left the coffee shop, and as I walked to the station I wondered what the hell I was doing. Brooding over how things had turned out — after everything had already been decided — was another of my chronic problems.
“Is it hard on you?” she asked.
“Is what hard?”
“Suddenly being on your own after being a couple.”
“Sometimes,” I said honestly.
“But maybe going through that kind of tough, lonely experience is necessary when you’re young? Part of the process of growing up?”
“You think so?”
“The way surviving hard winters makes a tree grow stronger, the growth rings inside it tighter.”
“You remember my dream?” she asked.
“For some reason, I do.”
“Even though it’s someone else’s dream?”
“Dreams are the kind of things you can — when you need to — borrow and lend out,” I said. I really do overplay these sayings sometimes.
Music has that power to revive memories, sometimes so intensely that they hurt.
An Independent Organ
“A gentleman doesn’t talk much about the taxes he paid, or the women he sleeps with,” he told me once.
“Who said that?” I asked.
“I made it up,” he said, his expression unchanged. “Of course, sometimes I do have to talk about taxes with my accountant.”
“I’ve been out with lots of women who are much prettier than her, better built, with better taste, and more intelligent. But those comparisons are meaningless. Because to me she is someone special. A ‘complete presence,’ I guess you could call it. All of her qualities are tightly bound into one core. You can’t separate each individual quality to measure and analyze it, to say it’s better or worse than the same quality in someone else. It’s what’s in her core that attracts me so strongly. Like a powerful magnet. It’s beyond logic.”
“These days I’ve often wondered, who in the world am I? And very seriously at that. If you took away my career as a plastic surgeon, and the happy environment I’m living in, and threw me out into the world, with no explanation, and with everything stripped away — what in the world would I be?”
As long as it all makes sense, no matter how deep you fall, you should be able to pull yourself together again.
I think that what we can do for those who have passed on is keep them in our memories as long as we can.
Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said, about the kinds of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why — except in a few special cases — they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.
Habara imagined a bunch of lampreys swaying like weeds at the bottom of a lake. The scene seemed somehow divorced from reality, although reality, he knew, could at times be terribly unreal.
“What do lampreys think about?”
“Lampreys think very lamprey-like thoughts. About lamprey-like topics in a context that’s very lamprey-like. There are no words for those thoughts. They belong to the world of water. It’s like when we were in the womb. We were thinking things in there, but we can’t express those thoughts in the language we use out here. Right?”
“Life is strange, isn’t it? You can be totally entranced by the glow of something one minute, be willing to sacrifice everything to make it yours, but then a little time passes, or your perspective changes a bit, and all of a sudden you’re shocked at how faded it appears. What was I looking at? you wonder.”
As he waited for his first customer, Kino enjoyed listening to whatever music he liked and reading books he’d been wanting to read. Like dry ground welcoming the rain, he let the solitude, silence, and loneliness soak in.
Happiness? He wasn’t even sure what that meant. He didn’t have a clear sense, either, of emotions like pain or anger, disappointment or resignation, and how they were supposed to feel. 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. This little bar, Kino, tucked into a backstreet became that place. And it became, too — not by design, exactly — a strangely comfortable place.
Kino’s wife was wearing a new blue dress, her hair cut shorter than he’d ever seen it. She looked healthy and cheerful. She’d begun a new, no doubt more fulfilling, life. She glanced around the bar. “What a wonderful place,” she said. “Quiet, clean, and calm — very you.” A short silence followed. But there’s nothing here that really moves you: Kino imagined that these were the words she wanted to say.
“Don’t look away, look right at it,” someone whispered in his ear. “This is what your heart looks like.”
Samsa in Love
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” the woman said in a pensive voice. “Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it… But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”
Men Without Women
The kind of unsettled feeling the newly deceased bring on is highly contagious.
Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there.
Once you’ve become Men Without Women, loneliness seeps deep down inside your body, like a red-wine stain on a pastel carpet. No matter how many home ec books you study, getting rid of that stain isn’t easy. The stain might fade a bit over time, but it will still remain, as a stain, until the day you draw your final breath. It has the right to be a stain, the right to make the occasional, public, stain-like pronouncement. And you are left to live the rest of your life with the gradual spread of that color, with that ambiguous outline.
Sounds are different in that world. So is the way you experience thirst. And the way your beard grows. And the way baristas at Starbucks treat you. Clifford Brown’s solos sound different, too. Subway-car doors close in new and unexpected ways. Walking from Omote Sando to Aoyama Itchome, you discover the distance is no longer what it once was. You might meet a new woman, but no matter how wonderful she may be (actually, the more wonderful she is, the more this holds true), from the instant you meet, you start thinking about losing her.
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.