Men Without Women
By Haruki Murakami
228 pp. Harvill Secker. £17.
Back in 2014 I was living and working as a teacher at a middle school in the western suburbs of Rome.
Those kids were little bastards, most of them.
But this isn’t about the unruly kids I taught, but one of the teachers I worked with, an Irish fellow named Rory.
He was, like me at the time, in his 20s, and was pretty much the walking epitome of an Irishman. Red haired, freckled, always had a smile on his face. A genuine joy to be around. A sort of real life leprechaun, in other words, though he didn’t go on about pots of gold and rainbows.
There was a little cafe, or bar, as the Italians call it, just up the road from the school that we used to go to before our classes would start. This was all quite far from the well touristed center. Tourists never stepped foot here, which was good news for us. The bar was a local joint, priced for locals, and never crowded.
We would sit there at the little round tables and snack on tramezzini (little triangular Italian sandwiches) and sip espresso (of course) while debating the finer things (what place better to do that than Rome?).
One day Rory came bounding in while I was sitting at the table in the back reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
“Murakami!” He said, excitedly.
We talked about Murakami for a while (Rory was a big fan), and about how fascinating, how Kafkaesque, his stories are.
“He sure does love the Beatles,” Rory said, and indeed, the first two stories in this collection are called “Drive My Car” and “Yesterday,” respectively. And, of course, there’s his novel, Norwegian Wood.
“And cats,” I’d add. “He loves cats.” And, of course, cats feature in this collection too.
There was nothing remarkable about that bar at all. Just your typical little Italian bar presided over by a young, nice looking Italian fellow. Some days I would go in and they wouldn’t have my favorite tramezzino (I was partial to the tomato and mozzarella), so I’d have to settle for the tuna.
But I quickly became something of a regular. I would routinely show up well before my class was due to start, sitting with a cappuccino or espresso at a little table in the back, reading.
The young, nice looking Italian fellow would be wiping down the counter with a rag, or smoking outside with the two bikers. An old Italian man with long, straggly hair and a dapper, albeit stained, blazer would be sitting at his usual spot by the door, sipping from a half drunk glass of red wine, the remainder of the first, or second, bottle on the table in front of him.
One day, Rory bounded in (he always bounded), causing the straggly haired man, in the process of bringing the glass to his mouth, to spill wine all over his blazer.
“Dreams!” Rory said, announcing the topic for the day as he bounded over to my table. I set my book down. Kafka on the Shore.
“Hey, great book!” He’d exclaim (everything he said was exclaimed), temporarily diverted. By this point the young, nice looking fellow who ran the place and the straggly haired wine drinker as well as anyone else who might happen to be in that day would have their heads turned in our direction, listening to whatever it was Rory was exclaiming in that delightful Irish accent.
“Dreams are so weird, aren’t they?”
I nodded thoughtfully as he remained standing there.
“One morning I’ll wake up and think I’m able to make sense of a dream, and then the next morning I wake up and think, wait, did I just dream about having sex with my baby brother? Please tell me I can’t make sense of that!”
That was the great thing about Rory. He was totally unabashed in everything he said. He just said it without caring what anyone might think of such honesty.
We all loved that about him, me, the young, nice looking fellow who ran the place, and the straggly haired wine drinker who sat at the table by the door.
While reading “Kino,” my favorite in this collection, I realized that “Men Without Women” is the first thing I’ve read by Murakami since whatever the last book was I’d brought into that bar, before I left Rome for a short three month stint in Azerbaijan, followed by a long four years in Ukraine.
I had to leave, I’d told myself. I liked Rome too much, and if I stayed any longer, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go, at least not willingly.
I lost touch with Rory. We weren’t even all that close when I was there. We would just engage in random conversations in that bar over tramezzini and espresso until one of us, inevitably, had to go to our class.
I hope he’s well.