Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Haruki Murakami’s “Scheherazade” (tr. from the Japanese by Ted Goossen) was originally published in the October 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

In Haruki Murakami’s “Scheherazade,” a man is confined to a house, as if he were under house arrest. A woman visits him twice a week, and in the role as his “support liaison” she brings him groceries, books, and DVDs, inquires as to whether he needs anything, and has sex with him. She also, like Scheherazade, tells stories. But in this case, it is the man, not the woman, who is locked up, threatened, and isolated.

Tantalizing mystery surrounds the entire story.

Why is the man confined? Why does he think he might end up in solitary confinement? Who is this woman, and who does she work for? Is she a prostitute? Is she a sex surrogate? How does she manage this within the confines of her marriage?

As for answers, there must be a thousand. The man could be a criminal, awaiting trial. Or he could be political prisoner, in the manner of a writer who has been confined for his outspokenness (except that this man is the opposite of outspoken). He appears to be at the mercy of someone, but he is able to open his own door.

Highly strange and entertaining, part of the story’s entertainment is that any two people could read it differently.

As for me, I like the way it explores male and female psychology, men having a tendency to be reserved, women having a tendency to resist that reservation, and both having a tendency to take their natural positions to extremes.

Habara, the man, embodies the emotional isolation that some withholding people, often men, endure. The story addresses the kind of challenge a man faces in highly gendered societies such as Japan, where this story takes place and where the ideal for men is to be strong and silent. The story suggests the yearning such self-containment produces. Habara’s isolation is almost complete, he thinks of himself as a “desert isle,” but at the story’s climax, he fears losing the woman’s companionship.

The woman who delivers his relief — the groceries and the DVDs and the sex — the woman whom he calls Scheherazade, ministers to him in a rather clinical manner, as befitting the nurse she is, but she amuses herself and him with conversation and story-telling. By the very nature of her job as a kind of no-nonsense geisha, Scheherazade is clearly unconventional, if not actually also criminal. After all, perhaps she is helping the mob keep him prisoner.

Whatever the reasons for their being thrown together, it turns out that he enjoys the story-telling as much as the sex, probably more.

As a story-teller, Scheherazade reveals herself to have had at least three “lives.” She claims to have had the realization that she was a lamprey in a former life. A lamprey is a parasite — an eel whose mouth can attach itself permanently to a fish, in order to slowly suck the life out of it. Kill it, as a matter of fact; kill it in a slow death.

In her second “life” she was a rebellious teenager who broke into a male classmate’s empty house several times in order to feel closer to him. She leaves behind a tampon, he leaves behind some porn magazines. They communicate, in a kind of code. All the while, they never acknowledge the other’s existence in class. Of course, someone in the family realizes there is an intruder, and Scheherazade is locked out. She forgets about the boy, but she remembers enjoying the trance like state of the whole episode

In her third life, of course, she is a story teller, and she “enthralls” the man, seduces him — not with her appearance, but with her story telling.

At the point when she tells Habara about how she stole a shirt and thought to leave behind some panties, their sex turns from being mechanical and automatic to passionate.

At the close, Habara wonders what he would do, how he would feel, if she was prevented from visiting him. He decides, in a rather detached manner, that “what his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating [reality] entirely on the other.”

After framing such a sophisticated thought, he turns his attention to fantasizing what it would be like to be a lamprey, hidden in the weeds. But try as he might, he cannot summon the necessary trout that would make the existence worthwhile.

He is at a rather limited stage of emotional evolution.

As for the woman — she seems to embody several stages of emotional evolution — from wordless, dependent, parasite, to a defiant, secretive rebel, to a partner, almost as if she represents the way women have changed, especially in Japan, over the past century.

The story seems to touch on the ways in which men and women in very structured societies might feel: the dominant one feeling as he were being devoured by the very helpless partner, the closed one feeling so self-contained he must be unlocked and broken into, the withholding one feeling as if it would be nice to be coaxed out of icy reserve by enchantment and like. It is as if the one who is so boxed up would like to try on the ways and wiles of the partner who is so open.

Of course, in a very strange way, the story is a reverse bodice ripper. In such a story the woman’s sexuality is unleashed only when a man breaks into her; in this story, the man’s emotions and thoughts are only unleashed when the woman breaks into him.

But I also have the fantasy that Habara is the handsome boy who once caused his classmate such internal disturbance, that he is also now her husband, a husband she has confined to the country house, where she is now his keeper, where she must now, once again, break in and awaken him. Perhaps this is a game they have played before.

And if this is the case, it is wonderful how she keeps him so enthralled, despite her being no longer young, no longer physically perfect. Of course, I have stretched the story a little bit to make it fit my fantasy. But I think the teller would allow me that, would give me license to break into it and to take what I need to take for my own pleasure.

A strange, tantalizing story. And I haven’t even thought yet about what it says about the act of creativity.

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By |2014-10-08T22:54:27+00:00October 6th, 2014|Categories: Haruki Murakami, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: , |11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Betsy October 6, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Hi Trevor – Thanks, as always, for this convenient link to the story.

    Writing my response will take a couple of days. In the meantime, I notice that Deborah Treisman’s interview (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-haruki-murakami-2014-10-13) is a satisfying read.

    I also want to comment that Treisman got this interview up at midnight – the same midnight that the story appeared. That’s a graceful condescension to her readers – an acknowledgement that some of us, if there is going to be an interview, enjoy having the story and the interview at the same time. So in addition to the gorgeous print that we are now reading electronically, we also get to have the story and the interview simultaneously. A nice package on a Monday morning.

    Being presently also immersed in Bolano and taking part on-line in the discussion, I am sensitive to an issue problem Bolano writes about (as does Philip Roth) – that readers sometimes confuse the writer with the work. In 2666, numerous readers of a celebrated author confuse the desire to posses an interaction with the writer with the importance of interacting with the work itself. One character in 2666 goes to far as to think she has the right to kidnap the author in order to “save” him and force him to have a baby with her. Instead, of course, what the writer wants is for us to have a conversation with the work – presumably the writer’s best iteration of what he or she thinks.

    I am sometimes surprised at the level of revelation that New Yorker writers occasionally divulge in these “This Week in Fiction” interviews, as if the writer also sometimes confuses what the reader needs (literature) with what readers sometimes foolishly want (to become one with the writer). If the story the author has written is the best iteration of what he thinks, then a secondary explanation of what he thinks should be redundant.

    But I found this interview with Murakami useful. He talks about writing in general; he answers no direct question about the story; he does not talk about himself in relation to this story. He does mention his concern with the effect that the story might have on the reader, that he intends for the reader to think about “how we ourselves would act in similar circumstances.”

    He also mentions writer-reader communication, something we’ve been discussing in our read-along of Bolano’s 2666. – the idea that the reader is an important participant in the construction of the story.

    I have to say I like that nod to the reader by Murakami – that he is writing so as to engage the reader’s imagination. That somehow, his purpose is to inspire in us the same creative experience he has had, or at least our own version of it.

    As for the story itself, I found Scheherazade a good read. I liked it. I’m going to enjoy thinking about it.

  2. Rosalind October 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Betsy, I also thought that Murakami asked me to join him in creating my own story. I became the fourth story.

  3. Greg October 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks Betsy for your keen observations on this story. For example, I missed the sly way the school boy left his porn for Scheherazade to see!

    Also, I disagree about separating the author and the work. Take a writer we both love – Alice Munro. When her biography came out, she wasn’t all that crazy about it, but she admitted it was fair game since she devoured the biographies of the writers she adores. After reading “Writing Her Lives”, I get more fulfillment when reading Alice. For example, “Nettles” has more meaning to me now after learning the details of Alice’s divorce. To summarize, I believe literature is the most intimate art form, so it is natural to want to learn about the author’s private life. The art and artist cannot be separated like a businessman and his private life.

  4. Betsy October 18, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Oh, I agree, Greg! The writer’s life informs the work.

    I am so happy to hear that Munro loved biographies – as I do also.

    Still, I am surprised that some writers divulge so much in their “This Week in Fiction interview. As much as we like to devour the writer, life and all, at the same time, really good work will stand on its own!

  5. Madwomanintheattic November 12, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Betsy gets me almost there. I can’t wait to teach this rich story because I will have access to a variety of ideas other than my own not only about the manifest questions of the story (why is Habara confined, what job does the tale-teller have), but also to a myriad of associations that others make. #whyIloveteachingadults

  6. Ken November 18, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    I loved this. I was thinking, for some reason, that Habara was in witness protection. But, of course, it’s ambiguous. The first mystery whets our appetite and then we get the second, bigger mystery–what happens with the teenage girl when a few years later she meets her crush again. I knew, of course, he would keep us hanging here. The fact that I’m not dissatisfied is a mark of a really good story writer. One is curious, but one is also satisfied by what the author has included–a meditation on narration and an interesting story of boundaries and break-ins. This really shows up the majority of stories published recently in The New Yorker.

  7. Esther October 7, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Hi, does anybody perhaps know what is the so called “leitmotif” in “Sheherazade” please?

  8. kryptickhushboo October 5, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t think he left out the porn magazine for her to see. Why would you conclude that?

  9. Puja August 12, 2018 at 9:31 am

    I don’t think Habara was the boy she had a crush on as in the beginning of the story it is stated that he is 4 years younger than her and in her story the boy is her classmate.

  10. Joel October 2, 2018 at 1:42 am

    It’s a really nice story where the sociological approach has been used, I admire the story.

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