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Scheherazade by Haruki Murakami — Review


By Haruki Murakami

The New Yorker, October 13, 2014, pp. 100-109.

Translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen.

In Haruki Murakami’s revisitation of this ancient classic, a woman the narrator calls ‘Scheherazade’ tells stories to her lover, Habara, “because she wants to.”  She seems to need to talk.  Nothing is at stake, certainly not her life.  Habara was enthralled by the stories because he was “able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment.”  They “eased [him] of worries and unpleasant memories,” and he needed this more than anything else.

The lovers don’t call each other by their names.  He doesn’t know hers, and she doesn’t use his.  “She barely spoke during their lovemaking, performing each act as if completing an assignment.”  She would leave at 4:30 to prepare dinner for her family, and Habara would be left to dine alone.  He watched DVDs and read long books.

There wasn’t much else to do.  He had no one to talk to.  No one to phone.  With no computer, he had no way of accessing the internet.  No newspaper was delivered, and he never watched television.  (There was a good reason for that.)  It went without saying that he couldn’t go outside.  Should Scheherazade’s visits come to a halt for some reason, he would be left all alone.

It is a little hard to figure out what this relationship is all about — that is, why it even exists.

Habara had met Scheherazade for the first time four months earlier.  He had been transported to this house, in a provincial city north of Tokyo, and she had been assigned to him as his “support liaison.”  Since he couldn’t go outside, her role was to buy food and other items he required and bring them to the house.

  Apparently, having sex with him was part of her assignment as well.

no vow, no implicit understanding — held them together.  Theirs was a chance relationship created by someone else, and might be terminated on that person’s whim.

So there seems to be some large, mysterious institutional force governing their lives and defining their roles and their functioning within this rather choreographed relationship.  It sounds like he might be under some sort of house arrest, or perhaps he has some disability or injury that he is recovering from.  It is never clear why these two people meet frequently and what motivates them, or why Habara has such a sense of confinement.  It is also unclear why they could not continue to meet even if this nameless, faceless force decided to terminate their “liaison.”

I think this ambiguity, this absence of internal motivations, is important.  Perhaps it is a comment on Japanese society.  I haven’t lived in Japan, so I cannot speak authoritatively on this, but from casual observation, it seems that many Japanese people live very structured lives that are defined by external forces, social expectations, that are a pervasive, overarching presence in their lives.  Thus, much of what they do and how they live is done in order to fulfill these imagined requirements and obligations, rather than from a deeply personal sense of purpose.  People don’t know why they are doing what they are doing, but they know they are supposed to do it — so they do.  What is the “reality that surrounds” Habara that he is so eager to forget, and thus so readily loses himself in Scheherazade’s narratives?  Japanese society.

I once met a young Japanese woman who had freshly arrived in the United States.  I asked her, “Why did you come to America?”  She replied simply, “Freedom.”  I was a little taken aback by that blunt response and all that must have been behind it, but I think it is not an uncommon sentiment among young Japanese women.  Japanese society can be burdensome and confining for young people and this relationship between Habara and Scheherazade, defined and controlled by a powerful unseen force, evokes that sense of invisible boundaries and sweeping tides.

There is nothing resembling spontaneity in this whole story, with the possible exception of their conversations.  The conversations after sex seem to be the only place in their lives where they can interact of their own volition  and participate in life as themselves.

Their sex was not exactly obligatory, but neither could it be said that their hearts were entirely in it. . . Yet, while the lovemaking was not what you’d call passionate, it wasn’t entirely businesslike either. . . to what extent did Scheherazade see their sexual relationship as one of her duties, and how much did it belong to the sphere of her personal life?  He couldn’t tell.

After this ambiguous set up of the relationship between Habara and Scheherazade, the story shifts focus and is taken over by a reminiscence Scheherazade relates from her adolescence that dominates the remainder.  Habara and Scheherazade, the couple, retreat and Scheherazade herself steps forward to claim center stage, specifically, a relationship — or, rather, an obsession — she had in her teens, which impelled her to break into houses — not to steal things, but to satisfy a psychological compulsion.  So it becomes a story within a story, or rather, a substory taking over what had been the main thread.

Scheherazade was obsessed with a boy in her high school class.  She broke into his house (rather easily through the front door with a key hidden under the doormat), and proceeded to go through his things, lie in his bed, smell his clothes, take a couple of innocuous souvenirs, and — very importantly, leave some small mementos of herself behind in inconspicuous places.  She is a rather aggressive girl, but in a very indirect way.  She never approaches the boy himself.  She tries to get close to him through the things he uses and lives with: by occupying the space he occupies, but when he is not there.

she began thinking about what to leave behind.  Her panties seemed like the best choice.  They were of an ordinary sort, simple, relatively new, and fresh that morning.  She could hide them at the very back of his closet.  Could there be anything more appropriate to leave in exchange?  But when she took them off, the crotch was damp.  I guess this comes from desire, too, she thought.  It would hardly do to leave something tainted by lust in his room.  She would only be degrading herself.  She slipped them back on and began to think about what else to leave.

Murakami does not write very well about sex.  He does not seem to understand it.  What I mean is he is detached from visceral passion.  Lust.  He doesn’t want to let himself or any of his characters feel it.  Neither Habara nor Scheherazade feel lust or strong passion in their relationship, and the above passage repudiates lust as a motivating force in Scheherazade’s behavior as a young girl toward the boy in her dreams.  It sanitizes her obsession with the boy.  It desexualizes her smelling his shirt and taking it home, lying in his bed, looking at his hidden pornography.  It makes the girl seem unreal and discredits her obsession with the boy.  If she had stuffed her wet panties under the boy’s pillow and approached him with a dripping cunt that was eager to fuck, it would have given her character more credibility.  She would have to do it in a Japanese way, of course.  Murakami could figure that out.  But Murakami cannot write the story that way.  He wouldn’t know what to do with a girl like that.  Believe me, there are plenty of Japanese girls who are not afraid of lust.

Scheherazade actually has more interaction with the boy’s mother than she does with the boy.  In fact, it seems likely that the boy never became aware of Scheherazade’s interest in him, although it is very clear that his mother did — and she put the kibosh on it.

When my break-ins stopped, my passion for him began to cool.  It was gradual, like the tide ebbing from a long, sloping beach.

The subsiding of Scheherazade’s interest in the boy is as amorphous and inexplicable as her obsession.  But it was the mother’s actions that locked the door and made the house inaccessible to her.  The boy himself was still readily available.  Scheherazade mentions watching him in classes at school and watching him on the soccer field.  She could have approached him in any number of ways.  It leads me to think that this obsession was more about the mother than it was about the boy.  Nothing she did had any impact on the boy, or even reached his awareness.  But the mother knew everything, or at least would soon discover everything, and Scheherazade knew this.  Still she pressed forward in defiant provocation.  It was an attempt at asserting independence — from the mother — through sex.  But it was quashed.  And it appears she never recovered.

Habara and Scheherazade have one more lovemaking session, at Scheherazade’s suggestion, and then she dresses and leaves.  It is not clear why Habara is left ruminating about the possibility — or rather, the certainty — of losing Scheherazade, and the greater specter of losing connection to all women.  Being “deprived of his freedom entirely” was the way he put it.  The invisible puppetmaster that pulls the strings on all of their lives and limits them to a very narrow range of possibilities, seems destined to pull the plug on his tenuous connection to humanity and leave him completely desolate.  This is his greatest worry.  There is nothing in the story to substantiate this fear, any more than there is anything in the story that explains why this affair is even taking place.

In the world Murakami creates these invisible forces that shape and define and limit our lives are both capricious and malevolent.  We can’t see them or influence them, yet we are always under their shadow.  Scheherazade gave a hint to the nature of that unseen, but all powerful governing force: the all knowing and all intrusive Mother, who locks doors and hides keys and crushes all free spirited love and passion.

One can look at this story in two ways as a commentary on the outward forces in Japanese society that define and structure and limit the lives of people, but it also represents a depiction of internal, unconscious forces within the self that restrict and crush the individual spirit.

The original story of Scheherazade was, perhaps, the earliest literary representation of a serial killer.  It remains paradigmatic.  An all powerful king who had felt betrayed and abandoned by one lover takes his revenge on all women thereafter.  Every day he marries a virgin and has sex with her.  The next day he beheads her and marries another.  This continues indefinitely, and endless stream of murdered, slaughtered virgins.  It is a tale of unbounded cruelty and hostility toward women from an original injury by one.  The king is so insecure and so lacking in his own sense of loveability that he feels he must kill each new woman or she will surely betray and abandon him.  This original insecurity and sense of being unloveable did not start with the lover who betrayed him, but rather, started with his mother who was never able to make him feel loved and secure in her love.  His rage was so extreme that he had to kill every woman he came in contact with.  It was the only way he could relate to women.  The betrayal of the first woman who touched off the spree was only the spark that lit a tinderbox that had been waiting for many years.  The injury that she inflamed had been inflicted many years prior, and indeed, goes back to the cradle.  Killing women was palliative, but not curative.  It assuaged his rage temporarily, like a valve letting off steam, but it did not begin to heal the original injury of neglect and abandonment that continued to fester and give rise to new waves of rage that demanded appeasement.  This is why serial killers need to keep on killing.  The mere venting of rage is not a cure.  Sex alone is also not a cure.  Scheherazade had the right idea.

Habara feels that abandonment by Scheherazade is inevitable.  It is only a matter of time.  This expectation was present before he ever met her.  It had nothing to do with anything she did or said.  His fear of being deprived of his freedom entirely is not a fear of external forces — there are no external forces — but rather of internal anxieties and insecurities that might cripple and disable his ability to connect on any level with women.  Scheherazade’s stories eased him of “worries and unpleasant memories” — most likely in relation to women.  He very likely had many of them starting way back with a mother who could not love or make him feel loved, and perhaps abandoned him.  Lust and passion are way too dangerous for a man this fragile.  Deep attachment is the utmost danger, because from an early age he learned that strong attachment leads to devastating disappointment — over and over again.  This is what the story is about.

The original story of Scheherazade ends optimistically, even triumphantly.  Murakami’s contemporary reworking is less optimistic, but has some promising trends.  The original story is a story of healing, through, perhaps, sated rage, coupled with satisfying sex, coupled with a continuing narrative whereby the wounded ruler becomes invested in the future.  Being able to see a way forward that is not an abyss of abandonment and devastation is a very important aspect of the healing process.  That is what Scheherazade’s narratives were able to do for the murderous king.  He was eventually able to fall in love with Scheherazade and make her his Queen.  A decisively optimistic outcome.

In Murakami’s story there is less healing and less optimism.   Murakami’s story ends with gloom and foreboding.  What is positive in Murakami’s tale is that Scheherazade and Habara were able to connect with one another in genuine communication from the heart through the stories she told after sex.  Sex was not the primary avenue of communication for this couple.  Their sex was obligatory and somewhat perfunctory.  The real action between them occurred afterward, when she told him stories of her past.  He took a genuine interest in her life and she found a receptive audience for things she needed to reveal.  This very positive connection aroused Habara’s anxieties of abandonment.  There has not been enough time to effect a healing of his underlying vulnerabilities and injuries, but if they continue, perhaps for A Thousand and One Afternoons, they might achieve a similar outcome to the original tale.


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