I do not speak Japanese. I wish I did. Because then maybe I would have a chance of understanding Haruki Murakami’s intentions with his latest collection of short stories, Men Without Women, as perhaps it is just a major case of lost in translation.
Murakami’s calm, minimal style becomes something altogether more sinister when used to describe the women in this collection of short stories. The sense of detachment, of a permanent, irrevocable distance from the women, as if they are other creatures that are less than human, is borderline psychopathic. What is noted about the women reduces them consistently to a handful of comments about their looks. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that thin and beautiful women equate to elegant mysteries who are graciously waiting to be self-realised by a writer mansplaining their desires to them. Nor is it a revelation that the women who aren’t in their twenties, don’t fit a slender body type and present in a more masculine manner are seen as just as mysterious, but in an easier to access way precisely because they’re less attractive to the ever-present male protagonist.
Men don’t get a great rap here, either. Every story is from the perspective of a man. Every single one of these men is helpless, angry, weak, unable to do anything but treat women as their personal property and reach out to other men through their shared experiences with certain women. Now, I like reading books about unlikeable characters. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami deals with many of the same themes as in Men Without Women but presents its characters with range and context. The view throughout the book is singular and unchanging, which makes it hard to conceive how Murakami sees gender relations as consisting of anything else other than this view.
If I have entirely missed the point and Murakami is parodying Bret Easton Ellis, then I will gladly concede I was wrong but it’s hard to find that satirical tone present, as it’s a remarkable piece of work to contain so much misogyny in under 300 pages. Misogyny that implies in, probably the worst story of the collection in terms of harm, An Independent Organ, women sufferers of anorexia begin starving themselves in order to be attractive, whereas if a man does it it’s a noble act, inspired by and akin to the starvation of those brutally tortured and murdered in concentration camps.
I cannot believe I have had to write that sentence. In 2017.
But the worst thing of all, she says pithily, switching to the third person to ensure her sarcastic tone is registered, is that this is all so achingly dull. All the stories are the same. Fractional variants on a monotonous theme. This kind of view of women is not only relentless in the book but also prevalent throughout the entire canon of literature, as well as most films and television. There’s nothing innovative or new to learn here about men moping over heartbreak and insidiously hating women for having autonomy that doesn’t suit their own desires or including a short story that’s a twist on Metamorphosis, which suggests that its protagonist has depth because he falls for a woman with a hunchback because he knows of nothing else.
The concept of redeeming features, as if propagating outdated myths about not only women but also men can be outweighed by sufficient wit, is stretched to breaking point here. There are some stylistic and thematic observations that are characteristically precise but they’re few and far between. The specific shade of pain in missed opportunities to communicate with another person, to then connect to a wider human network, are better depicted by writers such as Banana Yoshimoto. The despairing self-awareness of being a lustful man, having some sense of dependency on women, is rendered in all its confusing nuance by writers such as Nic Kelman.
Maybe there is something lost in translation but, even if there were, it would be a staggering oversight. Proceed with absolute caution. Or, if you can, read anything else.
Men Without Women was published by Harvill Secker on 9th May 2017.