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.
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.