Men Without Women – a quiet panic

M John Harrison in The Guardian:

MenA quiet panic afflicts the male characters in Hemingway’s 1927 collection Men Without Women, that touchstone in the development of both Hemingwayism and the short story. Men should never put themselves in the position where they can lose someone, a bereaved Italian soldier warns Hemingway’s long-running protagonist Nick Adams: instead, a man “should find things he cannot lose”. Ninety years later, Haruki Murakami’s men without women have come to the same conclusion, polishing it into a postmodern lifestyle.Kafuko, a middle-aged character actor, used to be married. Throughout their life together, his wife had affairs, but he loved her, and though it was painful – “his heart was torn and his insides were bleeding” – he never dared ask her what deficiency she was tryng to make up for in their relationship; now it’s too late. In another story, jazz fan Kino blunders in on his wife having sex with his best friend and, apparently more embarrassed than wounded, decides to begin life again as a bar owner in another part of town. He equips the perfect establishment, then sits in it playing his favourite albums and waiting for his first customer, a policy guaranteed to draw in spirits as unquietly defeated as himself.

By the end of the title story, its narrator has concluded, in appropriately Hemingwayesque fashion, that when you lose one woman, you lose them all: you become, somehow, the representative of the category “men without women”, alone but not singular. To be trapped by that “relentlessly rigid plural” is to live at the heart of loneliness. But something about this rhetorical sleight of hand reveals loneliness as a coping strategy in itself. Kafuko the actor, for instance, performs his way into his exchanges with others, taking on the qualities of the person he needs to be in the situation he’s in – but he learned the technique in childhood, long before he got into the profession, long before his wife died. “Why don’t you have any friends?” his new driver asks him one day, in a traffic jam on the Tokyo metropolitan expressway. It’s an interesting question.

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