Category Archives: Japanese Literature

Men without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Title: Men Without Women: Stories
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780451494627
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

When Murakami writes, you sit up and take notice. It happens to me every single time I pick up his books – he shocks me out of my existence, and takes me to a world of missing cats or women, jazz, elephants even, books – more so noir ones, and places where one loses their soul and don’t know how to get it back. His world is weird but I must also admit that it is pretty close to the one in which we live – only we don’t see it that clearly, whereas he has managed to and that’s why has the capacity to sweep us off our feet, every single time.

The same anticipation and excitement made me start his latest collection of stories (this means there is a novel coming up in 2018) “Men without Women” (inspired by Hemingway and thank God that’s where the inspiration ends). Well, let me be honest – as much as I love and adore Murakami’s writing, I wasn’t impressed initially. They all seemed to be the same kind of stories I had read in the past – about jazz, cats, women leaving men, etc. I thought it was the same but I was gladly mistaken when that perception changed as I finished the fourth story.

“What changed?” you might ask. Well, I think after the fourth story, at least to me, his stories made sense like they never had. The loneliness existed (but obviously) in each of them and there was this sense of ennui as well that loomed large, but there was something else that kept gnawing at me – something that I just cannot define. Was it my mid-life crisis (I just turned 34) that I saw being manifested in these stories? At some point, was it the realization of being lonely and perhaps abandoned by someone I love? What was it, that kept tugging at my heart relentlessly? Trust me, I tried very hard to find the answer within the pages of this collection of 7 stories (out of which I love four) that are vintage Murakami – and so be it if he has to write the way he does every single time, as long as people’s hearts and souls can relate to his written word.

Murakami’s characters are mysterious, enigmatic, call them what you might but they are just human – like you and I. The only difference is that their vulnerabilities are to be peeled – layer by layer – they don’t show it. So it could be Kino right out of a bad marriage, who opens a bar and emerges himself in it, only to understand his purpose. Or for that matter it could be the story of a successful plastic surgeon who hopelessly falls in love with a married woman (with whom and many others he has a clockwork arrangement of meeting and fucking and nothing else) and is doomed because he cannot have her. Murakami’s characters and his worlds are hidden and yet once in a while you get some glimpses of it to help you navigate through the writing, which to me is superlative.

The story that stood out most particularly for me was “Samsa in Love” – a tribute to Kafka, where Gregor Samsa woke up to find that he is human (loved the irony there) and how there is some sort of dystopian world at large outside his house, which he is unaware of, till a lady who deals with making locks makes him aware of it. This is Prague by the way – one of the few times I have read a Murakami story set outside of Japan. The pace at which this story moved – extremely fast and at the same time, leaves you with this unsettling feeling. I think most of his stories do that. They jolt you from your reverie and you don’t even realize that it has happened long after till you mull over it.

A lot of people have also criticized this collection by calling it sexist. Have they even read this collection of stories? To my mind, there is nothing sexist about it – it is if anything about empowered women who know better than men – a lot better if you ask me. They are not vague about their decision-making, nor are they women who need men – in fact it is the other way around – in all these 7 stories it is the men who want women so badly, that they might just do anything to have them in their lives. The translation by Philip Gabriel (who to my mind has translated most of Murakami’s works) and Ted Goossen shines – you can sense everything that Murakami might want to say (maybe I felt it because I have read a lot of his work?) and nothing seems to be lost to the reader.

From a recently widowed actor in the story “Drive My Car” to a teenager who has no ambition whatsoever and wants his girlfriend to date other men in “Yesterday”, Murakami’s men are there everywhere. Some of them lead lives that are content. Some that aren’t. Some who glide through life not wanting to upset the order of things and some who will challenge everything laid out for them. But they are around for sure. We just need to see them with the right set of eyes.

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The Art of Japanese Literature

Japanese fiction needs to be read slowly. It deserves that. You cannot rush through it – even if it is a crime pot-boiler or a love story. It needs patience. Like a good brewed cup of tea. The beauty of Japanese fiction sometimes is only best understood when you read more and more of it and do not generalize it to be flooded by suicides or dark plots.

My introduction to Japanese fiction began when I was sixteen and picked up my first Yukio Mishima. Mishima’s works are dense, full of longing, yes suicides as well and of a Japanese Era gone by – that of aristocrats and empires and emperors. The books written by him are something else – The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy is epic in its scope and story-telling. Moreover, the translation is just perfect. And that is where my love for Japanese literature took place.

Yasunari Kawabata

Yasunari Kawabata is another under-rated Japanese writer in my opinion. He had written all in all around twelve books and that’s that, most of which aren’t even translated to English. Having said that, most that are translated are small gems of brilliant literature. His language is simple and subtle, almost like haiku, almost like enjoying a cup of sake and not being too greedy about it as it satiates the mind and the soul anyhow. Yasunari Kawabata in his time wrote of social issues at hand – a love story between a Tokyo dilettante and a Geisha, depicted beautifully in Snow Country to another ill-fated love story as seen in Thousand Cranes. Kawabata’s short stories are full of eroticism (which is not in your face) and desire that stems and grows. In short, he is one writer; I would urge you to read.

Then came the significant time in my life when I read the first novel so to speak, “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a Japanese noblewoman and a lady-in-waiting. It almost changed the way I viewed fiction and its importance in my life. It has all the elements of the modern novel – and is considered to be a psychological novel – probably the first of its times. The characters are defined by their function in the book, rather than their name and that stood out the most for me, giving an insight to early Japanese culture. The book recounts the life of a son of the Japanese Emperor, known to the readers as Shining Genji. The Tale of Genji takes us through his romantic life, the aristocratic society then and the barriers. It could have very well been an ancient Romeo and Juliet. The fact of the matter is that it is a great read, though strenuous at times.

I then lapped up Natsume Soseki’s “I am a Cat”, which spoke of a Cat’s life and the world through its eyes over three volumes. What I enjoyed about this one was the one singular voice of a Cat and the impact it had on me as a reader. The cat is aware of the human world and its fallacies and depicts it with great humour, sarcasm, and wit. So there is also the funny side of the Japanese writer.

I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki

Very soon other writers joined the bandwagon. The urge to read more Japanese literature was like no other. I wanted to know more about the culture – their behaviour patterns, the way they thought, the society formed – the way of thinking – ancient and modern and the conflict within. No better writer than Junichiro Tanizaki to put that in perspective. I have read five of his books, and each book down the line spoke of two themes – sexual freedom and the free will to think and act. Tanizaki’s characters are strong, with the hidden weak side that they do not want anyone else to know and that as noticed and understood through his writing is a treat.

Kazuo Ishiguro joined the forces very soon. Ishiguro, a native of Japan and now settled in England, speaks of varied themes. From cloning and unrequited love as depicted in Never Let Me Go (a brilliant film also) to the state of butlers and maids in The Remains of the Day, his novels are not traditionally Japanese – except for two, but his sensibilities sure are and that is what makes him a great writer – the sensitivity, the sparing and effective use of language and the best judgment displayed in making his characters feel and speak the way they want to.

Japanese Literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, quite literally at that. There are close to a thousand nuances probably out there in every second book. The plot doesn’t reveal itself till it wants to be seen. The reader almost gets frustrated and his patience levels do not sustain the beauty of the language at times. I have seen that happen to most people. One such Japanese writer who has currently taken the literary scene by storm is but definitely Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s works again are not easy to understand and yet he connects with his readers in a manner unlike anyone else. It does take time to seep in to his books, but once you have, then there is no way out for you. You will read and re-read and quote and be dizzy with his words and the beauty of translation. From unrequited love to a detective story to parallel universes and subtleties of love and heartache, Murakami touches on these topics and more like a true genius. My love affair with him started with Sputnik Sweetheart and still continues to this very day. Thank you for writing the way you do.

Akutagawa entered my life after I watched the film, “Rashomon”. On knowing that it was a short story on which the film was based, I had to read it. Sure enough, the short-stories written by Akutagawa were spectacular. It revolves around the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife, followed by four versions – the bandit’s story, the wife’s story, the samurai’s story and the woodcutter’s story – each version with a different twist and re-telling. I loved the stories. For me, that was a hallmark of short-story writing. There was so much there which was done in terms of language and description and yet so much left to the reader’s thought process.

Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

I could go on and on about Japanese Literature. However there are so many writers I would urge you to explore if you have not already – Banana Yoshimoto being one of them, with her classic themes of loss of identity and voice, Osamu Dazai, well known for his character sketches and romanticism, Kobo Abe, with his skill in explaining the gore and the unknown nature of man, and Kenzaburo Oe, with his ruthless description of the dark corners of the human mind and soul.

Japanese Literature for me in most ways is the mirror to my soul. Every book read and every author speaks to me in different ways and on different levels. The hidden grace of a woman behind a Japanese curtain cannot be described by any other writer/s but Japanese. Some of the best literary works that I have come across have been Japanese and all credit also goes to the translators for doing such a brilliant job of making us connect to these books.

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