New Murakami Collection – “Men Without Women”

2014-04-22 16.02.45

I got the new Murakami short story collection Men Without Women in the mail today! Here are my initial impressions:

– It has a great cover. The art style is simple and almost like calligraphy in effect. I especially like the inclusion of a cat, which seems typically Murakami. The bar is also a nice touch, too, but the messy lawn under the tree gives the image its true power: it feels real and messy, very natural.

– It has a suitably cheesy sales pitch on the cover: “A world of Murakami short stories for the first time in 9 years. The stories are deeper, more poignant, and beyond expectation.”

– Here is the index:

Forward – 8 pages
“Drive My Car” – 52 pages
“Yesterday” – 52 pages
“Independent Bodies” – 52 pages
“Scheherazade” – 42 pages
“Kino” – 52 pages
“Men Without Women”- 22 pages

Murakami was impressively consistent with the length of stories, and I realize now (looking at the publishing history at the back of the book) that this is likely because all the stories were published in Bungeishunju. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know this earlier (and therefore didn’t blow cash on individual issues other than the very first one). Only the final story is a brand new 書き下ろし (kakioroshi).

– Notes on story titles: A couple of Beatles songs in there. One 1001 Arabian Nights reference. One nod to Hemingway. A Japanese pun (独立器官 = independent organs instead of 独立機関 = independent bodies?). And a Japanese surname (木野 = Kino).

– He includes a forward, which he immediately notes that he does not enjoy doing but had to for this collection due to the way it came about (ooh, very interesting…I’ll save the rest of the read for my commute tomorrow).

– Looks like a fun read! I’m sad to say that we’re well beyond Murakami’s early collections which were looser, more abstract, and contained shorter stories. I’ll probably start reading this week and may or may not liveblog at some point this weekend. I make no promises: It is the NBA postseason.


Chapter 17 “End of the World, Charlie Parker, Time Bomb” is a very short chapter, which is fortunate because it’s largely exposition: The scientist’s granddaughter has arrived at Watashi’s apartment, and they chat about what the grandfather must be up to, messing around in Watashi’s head with shuffling. She sneaks into his bed, making this a very softcore sexposition of sorts, which dials up the tension a bit, but otherwise it’s pretty plain, and short.

There is only one minor cut by Birnbaum (or his editor) in a section that is a brief break from the exposition to do some character detail. Check it out:

















“School is just sixteen years of wearing down your brain—that’s what grandpa always said. And he hardly went to school either.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “But weren’t you lonely without any friends your own age?”

“Hmm, I dunno. I was just so busy I never had time to think about it. And, come to think of it, I just never had anything to say to kids my own age.”

“Hmm,” I said. I guess she could be right.

“But I’m really curious about you.”


“You just always seem so exhausted, but that exhaustion seems to turn into a form of energy or something. I just don’t get it. I don’t know a single other person like that. Grandpa never gets tired, and neither do I. So, are you actually tired for real?”

“I definitely am,” I said. You could say that again twenty times.

“What’s it like to be tired?” she asked.

“Different parts of your emotions become unclear: Compassion toward your self, anger toward others, compassion toward others, anger toward yourself—those kinds of things.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Eventually nothing makes sense. It’s like spinning a top painted in different colors. The faster it goes, the more difficult it is to differentiate between them, and it ends in total confusion.”

“Sounds interesting!” the chubby girl said. “You seem to really know a lot about it.”

“Yeah,” I said. I could tell you anything you want to know about exhaustion that devours your life, exhaustion that bubbles out from the center of your being. That’s something else they don’t teach you in school.

“Can you play alto sax?” she asked me.

“I can’t,” I said.

It’s a nice little section. I’ve ended it awkwardly, right as the granddaughter gets a little ADD and then tries to make a move on Watashi, but he sets her straight and they get back to talking about the scientist and his experiments.

BOHE, on the other hand, makes this brief section even shorter and cuts all the sections highlighted in red above:

“Grandfather always said school’s a place where they take sixteen years to wear down your brain. Grandfather hardly went to school either.”

“Incredible,” I said. “But didn’t you feel deprived not having friends your own age?”

“Well, I can’t really say. I was so busy, I never had time to think about it. And besides, I don’t know what I could have said to people my own age.”


“On the other hand,” she perked up, “you fascinate me.”


“I mean, here you are so exhausted, and yet your exhaustion seems to give you a kind of vitality. It’s tremendous,” she chirped. “I bet you’d be good at sax!”

“Excuse me?” (178)

Birnbaum cuts the section that gives Watashi the opportunity to become introspective and think about how he feels, and then to express that to the granddaughter. Not a tremendous loss, but it does start to create an image that will be important later in the book: Spinning around. It took me a second to remember that コマ means top in Japanese, but the spinning and colors makes me think of “Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round,” which Murakami uses as an image in a later chapter.

At any rate, just minor stuff here, but nice minor stuff. Murakami concisely and compellingly describes what it’s like to be tired and how control over your emotions (compassion and anger) fractures. It’s important to be compassionate to yourself and to others. It’s difficult to do that when you’re exhausted.

When looking up the phrase 百とおりくらい (which I’m still not sure I totally understand), I located a personal blog post (JP) that mentions this passage in particular and suggests that the feelings expressed reflect the protagonist and the author’s feelings about life at the time of writing – Murakami would have been about the same age as his protagonist at the time, so I think that’s probably a good guess.



Chapter 16, “The Coming of Winter,” is another nice chapter in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World where Murakami is beginning to set up the major connections between the two parts of the novel that will play out in the second half: “Mind” and how it affects the people in the Town.

In this chapter, Boku wakes up sick, and the Colonel cares for him. He recovers slowly, has the Colonel deliver the map concealed in a shoe to his shadow, and finally visits the Librarian again.

There are no major revisions by Murakami between versions in this chapter, but Birnbaum (or his editor) [I should really just start calling this “BOHE” to be fair to Birnbaum; translators always take the blame, but editors could be equally if not more guilty] gets up to his old tricks of cutting the final few lines at the end of a section or the chapter in order to end with strong language.

Take this section:




「考えてみます」と僕は言った。 (231-232)

“It’s strange,” I say. “I still have my mind, but occasionally I seem to lose sight of it. Actually, the times when I don’t lose sight of it are far more infrequent. But I feel confident that it will return at some point, and that confidence supports my entire existence. So it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to lose one’s mind.”

The old man nods quietly. “Think about it long and hard. There’s plenty of time left for you to think.”

“I will,” I say.

I’m not happy with my translation of 見失う, but it’ll do for the purposes of comparison. I’ve also eliminated one of the line breaks to try and make it more clear that the Colonel is speaking. I was tempted to split his line with a dialogue tag. Here is what Birnbaum does:

“It is so strange,” I say. “I still have my mind, but there are times I lose sight of it. Or no, the times I lose sight of it are few. Yet I have confidence that it will return, and that conviction sustains me.” (170-171)

Hmm…interesting. Birnbaum [or his editor] seems to make a small error: He fails to notice the negative ending of the verb 見失う in the second usage. Which muddles the translation. Boku is trying to emphasize exactly how infrequently he is aware of the presence of his own mind.

More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, Birnbaum also cuts the final four lines (marked in red above). This is a nice strategic choice. He picks the strongest line and says BOOM, we’re done here, time to move on. His translation is wonderful: “That conviction sustains me” is a great forceful way to end. Strong, adaptive, creative translation. What do you think? Does he go to far here?

I forget whether I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but this might be a good point to remind readers that Birnbaum uses “mind” for 心 (kokoro), which I think makes a huge difference in the translation. I feel like the repetition of “heart” would start to get saccharine at some point and become less compelling over the course of the novel. Mind, on the other hand, is worth pursuing.

Birnbaum makes other cuts at the end of the whole chapter that have greater implications for the theme and language that Murakami uses in this chapter.

Boku gets to the library and waits for the Librarian. She takes a while to arrive, and when she does, he mentions that he thought she wouldn’t come:




僕は肯いた。確かに僕は彼女を求めているのだ。彼女に会うことによって、僕の喪失感がどれほど深まろうと、それでもやはり僕は彼女を求めているのだ。 (235)

“Why did you think I wouldn’t come?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I just had a feeling.”

“As long as you want me, I’ll come. You do want me here, right?

I nod. I definitely want her. My sense of loss deepens when I see her, but despite that I want her.

The key word we’re looking at here is 求める (もとめる), which can be “want” or “request” (unless I’m misreading it?). I rendered it once as “want me here” because I wasn’t quite bold enough to have Boku say “I want you” directly to the Librarian. As you can see in the translation, Birnbaum also avoids this through cuts and by translating 求める as “need”:

“Did you not think I would come?” she asks.

“I do not know,” I say. “It was just a feeling.”

“I will come as long as you need me.”

Surely I do need her. Even as my sense of loss deepens each time we meet, I will need her.” (173)

Birnbaum also cuts the few lines (highlighted in red) where Boku explicitly acknowledges his need/desire for her when she asks. The result is a much more implicit (dare I say “Japanese”?) conversation.

But this section is also interesting when read alongside cuts at the end of the chapter:







「求めている」と僕は答えた。 (236)

“Did you meet your shadow when she came back?”

She shakes her head. “No, I didn’t. I felt like there wasn’t any reason to meet her. I just felt like she was something totally separate from me.”

“But maybe she was part of yourself.”

“Maybe so,” she says. “But it’s all the same either way now. The circle has already closed.”

The pot on the stove starts to rattle, but it sounds like the wind miles in the distance.

“Do you still want me?”

“I do,” I say.

And here is how Birnbaum renders this scene:

“Did you meet with your shadow before she died?”

She shakes her head. “No, I did not see her. There was no reason for us to meet. She had become something apart from me.”

The pot on the stove begins to murmur, sounding to my ears like the wind in the distance. (173)

Again I’ve marked the redacted lines in red, and again you can see that Birnbaum cuts 求める. The communication between the two characters becomes far more implicit in translation than in the Japanese, which ratchets up the tension.

I don’t normally like stories/chapters/writing that begin or end with dialogue, but the original Japanese isn’t bad as far as dialogue goes. It feels decisive, especially when rendered into English where it isn’t necessary to repeat the actual verb itself. But Birnbaum’s translation also has its appeal, and it reminds me why I loved/love the novel so much and why it hit me so forcefully when I read it at 17 (15 years ago, damn): That unresolved, unspoken tension made me wonder whether Boku would be able to connect with the Librarian, and I kept turning the pages to find out.