Book review: Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami


Published on 3 June 2017, on Scroll.in

How many times can stories without endings be written?

There’s always an inexplicable sense of anticipation every time a new Haruki Murakami book comes out. Yet again, one dreams, and happily so, of inhabiting a world where cats talk and women disappear without notice; where the real seems unreal, and the meaning of reason is effortlessly lost.

But can every new Murakami pull it off?

Murakami’s newest short story collection, Men Without Women: Stories, released in English translation in May, is, like most of his other works, laden with his signature themes of melancholy, alienation, infidelity, and introspection. Ardent fans will agree that Murakami is a master of open-ended mysteries, and this edition is no different. Dreamlike sequences pregnant with existential fears overpower each of the seven stories.

He takes control of each protagonist’s mind and soul, works his way around their thoughts and actions, and manages to satisfy the reader in his trademark enigmatic fashion. And yet, something is missing.

When she went away

Murakami begins this collection with “Drive My Car”, the story of Kafuku, an ageing actor and his pained withdrawal from all things fun after the sudden death of his wife. But it’s not just her demise that has left him in a state of unwelcome solitude; it’s her numerous secret love affairs that he struggles to comprehend.

In no way does Kafuku attempt to cap the weight of emptiness he feels day in and day out, but somehow he finds himself opening up to his new chauffeur – a young woman whom he appoints to drive his yellow Saab 900 convertible. Her impeccable driving and the absence of unnecessary small talk reassures Kafuku into finding himself comfortably seated in the confessional backseat, recounting the most personal events of his life without having the fear of being judged.

Then there is “Samsa in Love”, Murakami’s role-reversal take on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where instead of Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself turned into a roach, the roach wakes up to discover that he is a two-legged, fully-clothed human named Gregor Samsa. The story, however, is more than just about the bug adjusting to being human.

Murakami’s use of a politically loaded backdrop – the Prague Spring of 1968, when freedom of speech and democracy was quelled under the Soviet hegemony – is clever and sharp. And the story offers glimpses of typical Murakami wisdom: “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”

Every story is unique, if not incredible, to say the least, but “Kino” is a sure-shot stand out. The protagonist, Kino, after witnessing his wife’s adultery (he practically walks in on his wife and her lover together in bed) quits his job and takes to living a low-profile life as a bar-owner. “He couldn’t make anyone else happy, and, of course, couldn’t make himself happy…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.”

But it’s not just Kino’s ruminations that are appealing, it’s also, in fact, the overall mood that the story creates – a dim backstreet bar, old jazz melodies playing on a loop, a gray cat that has picked a display case to be its sleeping corner, and a returning customer who likes his glass of Scotch and keeps his head dug into a book – that makes the story as delicious as you’d expect.

Nothing like its namesake

The title, Men Without Women, is, of course, borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s collection of short stories published in 1927. Murakami’s version, however, bears no resemblance to the legendary author and tortured Nobel laureate’s collection, which celebrated the muscular themes of bullfighting and prizefighting, as well as the customary matters of infidelity, divorce and death.

Western art has always influenced Murakami’s works and so, it’s not surprising that he has chosen to employ Hemingway’s famed anthology-title to offers his insights on what it means to be men without women.

“What I wish to convey in this collection is, in a word, isolation, and what it means emotionally. ‘Men Without Women’ is a concrete example of that,” said Murakami to New Yorker.

There are no extraordinary closures here. Men carry on with their glass of single malt accompanying their forlorn lives, women find peace in moving into oblivion, and the obedient jazz record lends musical life to the otherwise odd tales. Somewhat repetitive in places, a tad lacklustre this is Murakami on a slightly off-colour day. He still gets his magic right, but perhaps we’re beginning to sense what’s coming. And that’s not a good thing for a writer of Murakami’s stature.

Book review: Absolutely on Music by Murakami & Ozawa


Published on 7 January on Scroll.in

A series of conversations with a renowned conductor reveals a new facet of Murakami’s writing technique.

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Publishers will publish, bookshops will stockpile, and fans will comply. This is perhaps just one of the pluses of being Haruki Murakami. An idea is all he needs, and in no time there’s a brand new book ready to fly off the shelves.

So, when Murakami decided to record and transcribe his conversations on and about music – a total of six interviews during 2010 and 2011 – with acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa into a book, the success of the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely on Music is a gorgeous volume, detailing a significant facet of what inspires and rules Murakami’s very being – his relationship with music.

Like Murakami in global literature, Ozawa is renowned in the world of classical music. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 long years, and was music director for the symphony orchestras of Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago.

After decades of practising music, a sudden and unfortunate episode of esophageal cancer, followed by major surgery, compelled Ozawa to take a rehabilitation break. This is when Murakami caught his attention. Until then, the writer was just an “anonymous fan” whom Ozawa had heard of from his daughter. And it was only after they spent an afternoon listening to recordings by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida that Ozawa realised that Murakami “doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

Not an amateur

That Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club named Peter Cat in Tokyo before he became a phenomenon in the literary world is well-known. But despite being an avid listener and collector of records, and someone who frequents classical concerts and operas, why he almost always identifies himself as a “musical layman” is unexplained. He says he took decades to understand the nuances of the compositions, and still insists that his “technical knowledge of music is limited.”

The truth is that Murakami’s affair with music has been dedicated and disciplined, definitive glimpses of which can be seen in almost all his works. For instance, not only is one of his earlier novels named for The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, Leoš Janáček’s composition Sinfonietta plays a critical role in the epic 1Q84. As Scott Meslow writes, reading Murakami is often like negotiating a playlist.

But Absolutely on Music isn’t just about music – it’s also about comparisons between different recordings and performances from two different perspectives, the expert’s and the outsider’s. Obviously, a firm grasp on the subject is imperative to appreciate the depths of the music being discussed in the book.

Fan moment

In Absolutely on Music, Murakami confesses to being self-conscious in the company of Ozawa. He recalls his visits to Ozawa’s concerts, where he shared a moment or two with the maestro he hugely admired. He avoided talking about musical, because he knew that “Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather.” This formality gradually faded when Ozawa had time to spare during his rehabilitation, the period when he and Murakami became friends.

As in his fictions, Murakami doesn’t impose his love or understanding of music on the reader – and certainly not on Ozawa – through this book. But it’s certainly interesting to observe how he interprets a certain composition. While Ozawa reminiscences about his early career and narrates anecdotes from his days in 1960s New York, Murakami prompts and prods like a practised interviewer. In fact, his interpretation of Ozawa’s musical lifespan is fascinating to the subject too. At one point Ozawa exclaims, “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine. It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.”

Rhyme and reason

Like all musical compositions, Absolutely on Music too pauses for an interlude after every conversation. These are brief, self-aware breaks, interjected deliberately to maintain a rhythm in the narrative.

One such interlude is when Murakami deliberates on the effect of music on the craft of writing. Very lucidly, he explains to Ozawa how rhythm controls the flow of words:

“No one ever taught me to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

More than their shared passion for music, Murakami also aspires to draw out similarities between himself and Ozawa. In the Introduction he points out that both he and Ozawa are early risers, who spend those first hours of the day creating art – music and stories respectively. Both are happiest when they’re immersed in their work. And they both share the trait of stubbornness. Murakami’s original motive behind putting this book together is to bring out the ways in which each of them is dedicated to music.

But one can safely say that Murakami’s fans love his trademark eccentric worlds of possibilities rather than certainties, which seem to resemble theirs too. So, it’s hard to imagine Absolutely on Music hitting the same grey zone as his other books, for it digs deep into the technicalities of classical Western music, something that not every reader has their sentiments attached to. Still, because it’s Murakami, there’s still the unexpectedness of magic in this book.

Book review: Gone with the Vindaloo


Published on 28 February, 2014 in Time Out Delhi

Vikram Nair’s Gone with the Vindaloo is a humorous tale about the goodness of food that swivels back in forth in time as well as continents. A successful restaurateur by profession, Nair’s palpable love for food combined with a no-holds-barred flair for storytelling, ensures the committed attention of his readers through and through.

The story opens in the bust­ling city of Varanasi during the pre-independence era and we’re introduced to three close friends – Kalaam, Mateen and Arth Purabiya, whose lives are about to change. These were the days when the British were taking great pride and joy in mercilessly stomping their steely colonial feet over insecure Indians and seeding notions of caste and creed to divide them. As a result, Kalaam, the expert Muslim weaver who has the inherent skill of making “brocade”, the most enchanting fabric of Varanasi, is quickly cast-off. He is also blissfully unaware that his true calling lies not with threads, but midst pots and pans, and spices and herbs.

Fortune strikes early as he stumbles upon a group of English Burra Sahibs on a camping tour and ends up cooking chicken curry and rice for them. Thence begins his culinary expedition – from working as a cook at the Palmers’ residence to perfecting the nuances of vindaloo, Kalaam’s experiments with food are endless as well as successful. Every dish he cooks is loved and praised by all, but it’s the vindaloo that wins him the most admiration and fame. His signature style of cooking the dish cannot be matched or superseded.

Another story runs parallel, about the Mahadev household. An imperial civil service member by profession, Mahadev is a classic example of the author­itarian patriarch of the family. He aspires to rub shoulders with the British and dreams of his son to carry forth his legacy. Pakwaan, who works in his kitchen, yearns to replicate his grandfather’s magical vindaloo; the recipe of which comes to him in a dream and is about to take him places. But cooking is a personal skill; it is instinctive and not merely about following certain tabled instructions. When you try to globalise or condition it, the skill suffers, the flavour hems.

The novel elucidates contra­s­ting notions of British colonialism – their brusque manners in treat­ing fellow Indians as well as their appreciation of the local taste and flavours. Nair’s prose is a generous mix of stormy English phrases and heavy Hindustani overtones. From descriptive junctures of flatulence to frank gestures of sexuality, bordering on being somewhat coarse, the author leaves no stone unturned in cooking a flavoursome story – much like the vindaloo – and leaves the readers with a satisfied burp.

Vikram Nair, Hachette, R350

Welcome to the world of whiskers & purrs


Book title: The Wildings
Author: Nilanjana Roy
Illustrations by: Prabha Mallya
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 351

Well-known columnist and editor Nilanjana Roy’s first attempt at fiction, ‘The Wildings’, overtakes the mundane and goes on to decipher feline tendencies – whisker twitches, purrs, snarls and more. A fine dissection of animal behaviour, most of which is akin to us humans, the book is a vivid read, owing to Roy’s allegorical narration and Prabha Mallya’s illustrations in gray scale.

Originally published in The Times of India

My books are a snapshot of contemporary India: Vikas Swarup


Book title: The Accidental Apprentice
Author: Vikas Swarup
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 436

In a session during the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, author Vikas Swarup revealed that he finished writing his first novel, ‘Q&A’ in just two months. His third book, ‘The Accidental Apprentice’ however, took him a full one year and a half to write. “You can get lucky only once!”, says Vikas who after having done a polyphonic narrative in his second book, ‘Six Suspects’, wanted to revert to a strong first person voice, that too with a female as its central character.

Originally published in The Times of India

Confronting religion in ‘The Good Muslim’


Book title: The Good Muslim
Author: Tahmima Anam
Publisher: Penguin Books (2011)
Pages: 304

Among the myriad books that deal with Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, Tahmima Anam’s ‘The Good Muslim’ is the latest to join the league that questions the legacy of events during and after the war.

Any country that has battled for independence is aware of the severe consequences. In ‘A Golden Age’, Anam’s debut novel of 2007 and part of a planned trilogy, she had chronicled the story of Rehana Haque, a widowed mother who is estranged from her children, Maya and Sohail and her subsequent attempt to reunite the family like old times. However, the country’s political turmoil proves stronger than her challenges as a mother and the presentiments of her children participating in the freedom struggle, unfortunately comes true.

Originally published in The Times of India

Where humour and romance go hand in hand…


Book title: Those Pricey Thakur Girls
Author: Anuja Chauhan
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Pages: 390

Humour is a tricky art and most people fail to employ it intelligently in their works, be it cinema, sitcoms, musical lyrics or illustrations. The art of writing is no different and here too, humour seems to revolve around the farcical, with borrowed references from the commonest elements available such as gender inequalities, insecure politicos, or simply the society we inhabit. So when you chance upon a book that stirs up genuine chuckles and at times, uninhibited laughter without the slightest trace of contempt, you welcome it with arms wide open. Anuja Chauhan’s latest, ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’ is one such book on the stands that promises an entertaining read to those who don’t fancy brainy literature.

Originally published in The Times of India