Murakami Dram #01 – ‘Men Without Women’

It’s 20:38 on a Tuesday evening. It gets dark early now, before five. I left the office in darkness and, today, in rain. My feet were wet by the time I got home; I stripped off my soggy socks and got changed. In my coat pocket was a roll of goat’s cheese, ripe for crackers. This I put in the fridge. I snapped the kettle on to warm myself up.

Now stretched out on the sofa in comfortable clothes, with Art Tatum’s grainy 1940s cheerful piano solos filling my small apartment, I twist the cap off a minibar-size bottle of Dewar’s White Label whiskey and pour its contents into a heavy-bottomed glass tumbler. The lights are turned down low.

It’s time for my first Murakami Dram.

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In my last post I outlined the simple plan. Whilst re-reading Haruki Murakami’s surrealistic, melancholic, effortless prose, I will take my cues from his characters and listen to their jazz, drink their brands of whiskey in the way that they like it, and revisit some of my favourite passages from the novels.

These posts aren’t reviews, more gentle thought experiments. For my own amusement, and perhaps yours, I’ll experience the unique combination of dram, tune and written word provided my Murakami-san and see what spills out of that subtle change of consciousness. Who knows – perhaps I’ll enter a Murakami mindset and tap into his genius? Or maybe, more likely, I’ll just have a fun time.

In this first post I’m reading Murakami’s Onna no inai Otakotachi, or Men Without Women (Penguin Random House, 2017), in the translation by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen.

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Men Without Women is Murakami’s latest, released earlier this year in fancy hardback. It is his second collection of short stories in translation, brought together under the theme of men ruminating on their relationships with women. Like any collection, some stories are better than others.

I’m sure that every novel by this understated but highly-rated Japanese author features his trademark mentions of jazz, whiskey and women. The motifs are so common that his global fans, especially his Japanese followers (unsurprisingly middle-aged men) frequently gather to drink a few measures to some soulful tunes and discuss his work. No doubt they were gutted that he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature again this year, as was I.

Let’s start with the jazz. As expected there were a few mentions in “Men Without Women”. In the story “Drive my Car”, protagonist Kafuku sips a “single malt whiskey in the booth at the bar” more than once, though there are no brands mentioned. In the story “Kino”, a visitor to Kino’s jazz bar places an order:

 

He raised his hand an inch or two to motion Kino over, and ordered a whiskey. “Which brand?” Kino asked, but the man said he had no preference.

“Just an ordinary sort of Scotch. A double. Add an equal amount of water and a little bit of ice, if you would.”

An ordinary sort of Scotch? Kino poured some White Label into a glass, added the same amount of water, chipped off ice with an ice pick, and added two small, nicely formed ice cubes. The man took a sip, scrutinized the glass, and narrowed his eyes. “This will do fine.”

 

It turns out that there is more than one brand of “White Label.” My supermarket offered a large bottle of Dewar’s White Label Scotch, but I ended up ordering a teeny-sized double measure from Amazon instead. It’s been sitting on my kitchen counter for a couple of weeks, as life threw its usual mixture of best and worst at me.

Next, the jazz.

There’s got to be a mention of jazz in there somewhere. I scoured the book a second time after the enjoyable first reading and was surprised to confirm that it really was 153 pages before there was any mention. Only the story “Kino” mentions music, which isn’t shocking considering it’s about the owner of a bar:

  • ‘Like dry ground welcoming the rain, he let the solitude, silence, and loneliness soak in. He listened to a lot of Art Tatum solo piano pieces. Somehow they seemed to fit his mood.’ (“Kino”, p.153)
  • ‘As always, Kamita was at the farthest stool down the counter, sipping a White Label and water and reading. The two men were seated at a table, drinking a bottle of Haut-Medoc […] The two men smoked a lot, though, which for Kino, who hated cigarette smoke, made them less welcome. With little else to do, Kino sat on a stool and listened to the Coleman Hawkins LP with the track “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He found the bass solo by Major Holley amazing.’ (“Kino”, p.154-155)
  • ‘That night, though, the woman came to the bar alone. There were no other customers. It had been raining for a long time, and when she opened the door cool night air crept into the bar, carrying with it the scent of rain. She sat at the bar, ordered a brandy, and asked Kino to play some Billie Holiday. “Something really old, if you could.” Kino put a Columbia record on the turntable, one with the track “Georgia on My Mind.” The two of them listened silently. “Could you play the other side, too?” she asked, when it ended, and he did as she requested. She slowly worked her way through three brandies, listening to a few more records – Erroll Garner’s “Moon-glow,” Buddy DeFranco’s “I can’t Get Started.” […] She just sat there, listening to the music, lost in thought, sipping her brandy.’ (“Kino”, p.162)
  • ‘All he wished for was some music. Teddy Wilson, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton – sometimes he longer desperately to listen to their old-time jazz, with its steady, dependable technique and its straightforward chords. He wanted to feel the pure joy they had in performing, their wonderful optimism. That was the kind of music Kino sought, music that no longer existed. But his record collection was far away.’ (“Kino”, p.178)

 

It takes me a while to write up the mentions above. I’ve yet to take my first sip of White Label, with an equal measure of water, plus ice. The cubes aren’t “perfectly formed”, more like shallow oblongs, so I’ve thrown in three instead of two. The idea behind ice in whiskey is to soften its harsh burn, should it be that kind of tipple – so too with water. Perhaps both water and ice is redundant, but this is how the strange visitor to Kino’s bar, Kamita, drinks it, and so this is how I will.

It’s only fitting that I re-read the story “Kino”, since it’s the main source of both the whiskey and the jazz. It’s a story of a man who loses his wife, coolly shrugging off the pain of her infidelity, and opens a bar that soon becomes successful. In typical Murakami style, the story takes strange dreamlike turns, featuring an aloof and wounded young lady, smouldering with sexuality and sadness; a procession of snakes; and a force of darkness that soon traps Kino in a place so lonely and isolated that he’s forced to confront his situation as a man without a woman.

As I open the book for the third time, my Art Tatum piano solos have tinkled out. I uncovered a ten minute version of Coleman Hawkins’ “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” on YouTube. It’s riotous, almost disrespectful of the original tune (his take on a slave song from the 1800s, based on the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho, in which Joshua led the Israelites against Canaan (Wikipedia tells me this is Joshua 6:15-21) under the auspices of God. This version is instrumental (not counting the fuzzy, indecipherable scat), lacking the punch of the Hugh Laurie cover I’ve been listening to for the last six years. It’s fun, and reasonably fitting for the story’s opening pages. I let YouTube fetch a few more jazzy Hawkins numbers to carry me through to the second act.

The watered down White Label is very pleasant. It’s smooth going down, leaving only an after-sensation of something having scraped my pharynx. The coolness of the ice makes it feel light. The jazz puts me in a pleasant mood; my blues have long floated away, and a candle is burning down, and I’m conscious of the subtle scrape of the pages as I turn them in my (slightly overpriced but pretty) hardback volume.

After all the prep for this post, by the time that I get a few pages into the story – the part where Kino catches his wife having an affair with best friend and subsequently quits his job, soon to open his bar – the whiskey has given me a pleasant buzz. I’m enjoying the music. There is only a trace of the ache behind my eyes that my day job gives me. And I’m relaxed.

Kino’s problems make me think about how many others suffer such cruel, but common, fates. No blame is ascribed to either Kino or his wife. My stance on cheating is that it is hardly ever acceptable. Forgivable, eventually, as most things are. I’m lucky enough to have only been cheated on one time (as far as I know). Like Kino, I walked away without feeling much of a sting. Also like Kino, I carried it with me without realising, and it’s affected by relationships since, not just with women but with friends and family. Everyone cheats, it seems. No-one seems to be faithful in the way that I have been.

Time for a deeper draught of the old White Label, I think.

When Kino tells his aunt that he’d like to rent her space (to convert into a bar) and admits that he and his wife will soon be divorcing, she is silent for a while. Then she offers him a discounted rate. Did she instinctively sense that he was hurt? Was she empathising, or sympathising? Just how many people have suffered as the result of people being shitty to one another, anyway?

YouTube has morphed away from My Hawkins and into something else. I summon Billie Holiday from amongst a thousand other versions of “Georgia on My Mind”. Is she singing about the place, or a person? The mind is exceptional for keeping someone just under the surface, all day every day, until the hurt heals over. I choose to believe that the brain is wonderful for finding a way to eventually heal from the pain, rather than finding a way to dwell on it.

 

He wasn’t sure why, but he felt no anger or bitterness toward his wife, or the colleague she was sleeping with. 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 has been his fate all along […] He couldn’t make anyone else happy, and, of course, couldn’t make himself happy. Happiness? He wasn’t even sure what that meant.

 

Surprisingly, the music is keeping me chipper. Billie Holiday performed the blues in the way that made them popular: cheerfully. A release from the weight that melancholy brings, by unlocking it with word and voice, but then carrying it away on melodies that bring lightness and cheer.

 

Love me or leave me or let me be lonely.
You won’t believe me, I love you only.
I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else.

—Billie Holiday, Love Me or Leave Me

 

In Kino, a regular customer – a soulful woman with an abusive partner – listens to Billie and Erroll and Buddy and then shows Kino the scars of her past. She has “something special about her, something that stood out”. In a particularly so-called male-fantasy way, the sultry woman takes control of the situation, then leaves Kino alone in his bed at some point in the night. He surveys his own wounds – scratches, bites, an aching penis. Even fantasy encounters hurt, apparently. But not as much as cigarette burns.

Fittingly, Billie begins to sing “Blue Moon” – You saw me standing alone / without a dream in my heart / without a love of my own.

I prefer the Elvis version, appropriation be damned.

By the time I reach the halfway point of the story, when Kino’s wife visits soon after their divorce is finalised to apologise for her infidelity, I have a touch of headache at the front of my skull. There is still a little whiskey left, soon to be supplemented by a cheaper but more meaningful 12-year-old Glenlivet I’ve been keeping as a celebration of finally owning my own place. I turn the music down a touch rather than switching to tea just yet. There is still a lot of story to go.

Why doesn’t Kino give his cheating ex-wife a piece of his mind? “You’ve apologized, and I’ve accepted your apology. No need to worry about it anymore,” he says to her. How bland of him.

An ex of mine likes the idea of this little Murakami project. She hates whiskey and doesn’t like jazz, but she’d like to join in. I tell her, hazily, that she’s not allowed – didn’t she read the title of the book? This one is for Men Without Women. We’d had our chance. But maybe for the next book I’ll do this with a sparring partner.

 

“Maybe I don’t have the right to say this,” this woman – his former wife – said, “but I think it’d be good for you to forget about what happened and find someone new.”

“Maybe,” Kino said.

“I know there must be a woman out there who’s right for you. It shouldn’t be that hard to find her. I wasn’t able to be that person for you, and I did a terrible thing. I feel awful about it. But there was something wrong between us from the start, as if we’d done the buttons up wrong…”

 

When Kino is forced to go into hiding following some strange occurrences, he is shocked almost to paralysis by a knocking on his hotel room’s door. He knows who is knocking, but he can’t answer. He sees a monstrous shape crawling near his window. Something he should face, but can’t. It’s his hurt that he should have acknowledged years ago, his living pain. By denying it then, he has a reptilian coldness within him now.

What is it about Murakami that allows him to tap into simple hidden truths? Is he a man without a woman? His characters so often share his interests – jazz, whiskey, running, reading and writing – that it wouldn’t be wrong to call him a partly-autobiographical writer. Has he also suffered loneliness, despair, and hurt? Is this why he can write a book about man’s specific brand of aloneness? Like Kino, is he facing the pain in his own heart head on, by writing this story?

The glass is empty, the candle is burning down. It is 22:39.

—db

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Introducing: The Murakami Experience

Haruki Murakami STP editing

Reading has always been my greatest solace, and my most solaceful reads have been from Haruki Murakami.

I read Kafka on the Shore soon after its publication in 2002, during my university years, and soon devoured his entire back catalogue and have snapped up every one of his novels since.

Known for his elegant prose and surrealist narratives, Murakami always reminds me that there is beauty in the mundane, and that it’s normal to feel pain and confusion.

Recently overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Literature again, this year in favour of lesser-but-still-OK Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, Murakami’s disappointed fans have been remorseful in typical style, with whiskey and jazz, both hallmarks of Murakami’s stories (along with lonesome male protagonists, quietly sad women, and cats).

I took great pleasure in reading his latest book, the collection of short stories Men Without Women. Inspired to revisit his previous works, I’ve also decided to embark on fun project that I’ll share with my dear readers between more useful posts on editing and writing.

Whenever I encounter mentions of a specific whiskey or jazz piece as I read a Murakami novel, I’ll spend a relaxed evening listening to that very piece and sipping that very dram whilst reading a favourite chapter or two, and then writing about the experience that comes from that unique combination of Murakamiist things. Perhaps I’ll get sucked into a dadaist Murakami mindspace, or find myself able to talk to cats…? Or maybe I’ll just enjoy myself.

Join me in a week or two for my first Murakami Dram – reading Men Without Women.

—db