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Haruki Murakami’s “Men Without Women”

What women want

...and more modern mythology, including a lost Egyptian dream

...and more modern mythology, including a lost Egyptian dream

June/July 2017

The prolific Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (ab0ve) is better-known for his novels than his short stories, but in Men Without Women he shows that less is sometimes more. A man who starves to death for love, a woman who claims she used to be a lamprey eel, a mysterious whiskey drinker who scares away gangsters – it is the secondary characters who truly come alive in these tales. The phlegmatic protagonists fade into the background, eclipsed by the women they have loved and lost – or dread losing.

To these men, women are so incomprehensible they might as well be another species. In “Samsa in Love”, a playful tribute to Kafka, a beetle wakes to find he has been transformed into a man. Alone and afraid, he falls for the first woman he sees, a hunchbacked locksmith with an ill-fitting bra.

Some of the stories have previously appeared in the New Yorker, but they say far more in conjunction, helped by well-matched translations by Theodore Goossen and Philip Gabriel. Peppered with strange women and passive men, unexpected suicides and cats, these vignettes will leave readers questioning, and linger in the mind. ~ INDIA STOUGHTON

Keeping it in the family
There are many complex, distant mothers in Colm Tóibín’s fiction, and it’s hard to find a mother more complex than Clytemnestra, the most notorious queen in Greek mythology. She murders her husband after he sacrifices their daughter to the gods, only to be killed in turn by their vengeful son.

Aeschylus used the murderous cycle as an argument for the importance of the law. But rather than imposing ideas, Tóibín strips them away. There are no active gods in House of Names, no pleas for order; Tóibín’s retelling is governed by compassion and responsibility, and focuses on the horrors that led Clytemnestra to her terrible vengeance. Her sympathetic first-person narrative makes even murder, for a moment, seem reasonable.

Tóibín’s prose is precise and unadorned, the novel’s moments of violence told with brutal simplicity. But its greatest achievement is as a page-turner. In a tale that has ended the same way for thousands of years, Tóibín makes us hope for a different outcome. ~ JAMES REITH

 

He dreamed of Africa
Jeffrey Gettleman got a bad case of le mal d’Afrique when he was 18 and took a road trip from Kenya, down through Tanzania to Malawi, with an adventurous young photographer called Dan Eldon. It was the same year he met the woman he knew would be his wife. Love, Africa is his memoir of how he eventually got it all: life, freedom and the girl. But it was no easy journey. Working his way up from cub reporter to foreign correspondent, Gettleman finally landed his dream job – east Africa bureau chief of the New York Times, a beat that covers a dozen countries that are all dangerous in their own way; Eldon was killed at the hands of a crazed mob in Mogadishu. But Gettleman never forgot the lesson Eldon taught him, that the best reporting is not from the top down, but from the bottom up.

“Love, Africa” is filled with resistance fighters and office workers, cooks and nightwatchmen rather than diplomats or politicians. But Gettleman’s most important journey is within himself. Journalists are selfish, and Gettleman more selfish than most. “Want, want, want. Take, take, take. Me, me, me,” he writes. Finally, he learns to put love before ambition, and the boy becomes a man, which is the making of his book. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

Regrets, I’ve had a few
“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville during the ill-fated uprisings of 1848. If the characters in Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins had read their Tocqueville, they would surely have been less surprised when the Egyptian revolution that started with such optimism dissolved into quasi-theocracy and eventually full-blown counter-revolution.

Regret pervades this fictionalised account of the years between the autumn of 2011, when the sun shone with renewed purpose through the haze enveloping downtown Cairo, and the summer of 2014, when the military strongman Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi became president of Egypt. There is regret for the friends, lovers, acquaintances and strangers lost to buckshot and torture, and more for failing to consolidate the revolution, for not controlling the message or its medium. This is the 21st century, and although battles are pitched on the streets, wars are won online. Hamilton’s novel traces the journey of a dwindling group of bourgeois revolutionaries as their allies, their friends and eventually their hopes are snatched away. ~ LEO MIRANI

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