The Single Life
Last time, we looked at the end of Kino and the way Kino the character transforms, driven to an extreme point by the experience of having his desolated heart trying to physically confront him. It is a painful transformation the story describes; it’s not as if, in the end, Kino becomes supremely happy running his little bar and listening to American jazz records, all conflicts settled. No, he winds up cowering in a bed in a seedy hotel. He’s in pain but it’s genuine pain, unlike many of his vicarious feelings earlier on.
Some readers might read Kino—contained within the larger book, Men Without Women—and think, “Huh, this guy Murakami is Japanese but I’m not sure the story is tied much to Japan. It’s kind of a universal tale.” This take has some merit in that the theme of the destructiveness of ignoring your feelings—no, of actively denying them—occurs across many cultures, as does the theme of men living to their peril without women, something we will consider a bit more later.
I’m no expert on Japan, but I’ve read a bit about Murakami, and I believe whatever the universal appeal of the story, he was writing about a specifically Japanese issue—the loss of identity.
Murakami has been concerned about the loss of meaning and identity in Japan since WW11, a loss he associates with the modern Japanese obsession with work and material success. He is opposed to a lifestyle of materialism and acquisitiveness.
Seen through this lens, Kino is sharp and clear, best beloved. The main character, Kino, is someone who does not conform with his peers’ attitudes. His first interest is professional sports, both as an athlete and then once he’s injured, as a sales rep for a running shoe company. But in both roles, it’s not so much the money-making orientation he seeks, but the beauty of running. Then after the breakup of his marriage, he opens a small bar in Tokyo, where he is uninterested in making a lot of profit, just in breaking even—not at all a common modern Japanese goal. It’s interesting to note that Murakami himself ran a small bar in Tokyo when he was younger.
In any case, the fictional Kino is a maverick. Through a painful process of dealing with numerous allegorical figures and guardian spirits, he claws down to his identity, if you will. It’s a painful core but it’s him.
Apparently, Murakami really wants his writings to help people see the need to have more in their lives than material success.
‘Kay. Yes, another lens here is that Kino is part of a story collection called Men Without Women, and this too is no accident. By my count, there are at least three women in the story—Kino’s wife, his aunt, and the scary lady with the cigarette burns—but they are distanced from Kino. His wife divorces him, his aunt lives elsewhere, and the scary lady? Well, have you read the story? She’s no helpmate.
No sir, Kino is a man living alone without wife or children. Now, is this significant? Could it be that both men and women might live happily alone? Sure, I guess, but that’s not what Mr. Murakami (or more accurately, the implied author) thinks. I believe in this story and in the others in the collection, he shows that men living without women are diminished. Would he say the same for gay people? Polyamorous? Don’t know, this book is all about men without women.
Apparently, Murakami really wants people to live as couples and families.
But you might disagree with him. You might think the happiest, most authentic individuals are those who live alone. You might say, I don’t like the premise or theme of Men Without Women.
That is probably a good argument for the value of a critical reading of fiction. It’s good to be aware of entities like the implied author, about themes. It’s important not to just assume that the author knows more than you do. It’s good to learn how tolerant you yourself are about opinions you disagree with. It’s good to be able to hold conflicting points of view in your head.
Oh, stop. Too preachy.
Because of the allegorical figures and the magical realism, Kino forces its readers to consider themes in the story. Kino himself is a finely drawn and sympathetic character; we relate to him in his struggles with athletics and the failure of his marriage as if he were real. He may have played a significant role in the dissolution of his marriage, but we are not shown that and are left with sympathy for a lonely guy. Other characters, like Mr. Kamita and the lady with the burns, are too one-dimensional to seem real. So we are limited if we want to read the story on the level of character and the emotions evoked. We have a hefty dose of theme, which is a reminder that this is fiction, that the implied author created this story and has an agenda about it.
‘Kay. Next week, a new one. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. Till then, you happy few.