06 May 2011

South of the Border, West of the Sun (Murakami Haruki)

The story, a love story, is simple. A boy fell in love with a girl. Many years later, when the man was already married, they met again.

I usually hate Haruki Murakami's fiction. The flatness of his characters, the cheesy self-help quotes, the repetitions of these cheesy self-help quotes, the poor execution of surrealism. These are some of my gripes about his works, particularly in most short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, all the stories in after the quake, and in Kafka on the Shore. The latter novel is simply an ambitious mess of puzzle fragments whose seams show at the edges. So I'm a bit surprised with the depth of characterization in South of the Border, West of the Sun. Murakami's mannerisms were still present but they were tempered by the voice of its narrator. The things that don't work well with the other books found their way here in concentrated form but somehow this book resisted the tendency to be mediocre. Perhaps it was because of the straight diction of the book, which can be detected in translator Philip Gabriel's careful words. For some reason, I liked this book as much as I liked Norwegian Wood. The simple writing style evoked authentic feelings of pain and loss. The characters were ordinary (ordinary guy, ordinary person) as the characters themselves are wont to describe themselves, here as well as in Norwegian Wood. Their very ordinariness questioning the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in, the unusual relationships forged and broken. The narrator's emotional journey progressed through a fair amount of self-examination, an all too honest self-examination that was despairing and yet never totally depressing, never completely succumbing to the blows of life and hate, to the vision of the abyss. The main characters foundered and were lost. But a touch of hope lingered at the end, a generous glimpse of the miracle of existence. The ordinary characters were trying to be brave for the coming of "a brand-new day", here in this novel and in others.

This love story had certain moments of darkness, certain ominous moments. Yet in certain places, it had lightness and buoyancy, the fleeting clarity of an insight. Perhaps an inner truth, perhaps what goes on in the heart.

It's a good story. As clear and transparent as good wine.



  1. agree in parts ,Murkami also seems use similar types of characters in his books ,I read thios couple years ago and like it but wasn't bowled over by it ,all the best stu

  2. Yeah, the main character in one book can almost be interchanged with another. The other characters around him are also similar types. I think the short stories are mostly weak because they trivialize in a short space the baggage carried by the characters. Whereas a sprawling surrealist epic can go out of hand, especially when populated by "non-ordinary" artificial characters (though I love the Sheep Man, particularly in A Wild Sheep Chase).

    All the best, Stu!

  3. Having just been completely blown away by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Rise, I'm both amused and a little worried about all the negatives you heap on Murakami's other fiction (esp. Kafka on the Shore, which has a good shot at being my next novel by him whenever that time comes)! However, I'm glad to hear that this one worked a little better for you and I'll keep your reservations in mind later so I don't let my own expectations get too out of control for my second Murakami. P.S. Have you read any Oko Abe? Any opinions on him?

  4. Richard, The Wind-up is an unfinished book for me. I left it hanging after part one, I think 10 years ago! Now, I'll have to restart the book. Which is something I half-heartedly look forward too, as I remember many dreamlike sections in it making me want to sleep and dream the story instead. Though the harrowing story of Lt. Mamiya was still in my head after all these years.

    I'm not not-recommending Kafka. I think the Borges elements in the book will interest you. At this point, the surreal/magical realist side of Murakami is not always working well for me. But I've committed to reading all his books so I'm taking chances.

    Kobo Abe? I haven't, but I acquired 3 of his books and so I might give them a go soon.

  5. Kobo Abe, correct [ugh, I saw that right after I typed it last night and then slunk away in embarrassment and disgrace]. I don't have any time for him this month, but I got a hold of a couple of 1960s films (Pitfall and The Woman in the Dunes) where he contributed the screenplays. Am told he was an influence on the young Murakami, but I don't know whether that's good news or not for you now given how rewarding your Murakami project has and hasn't been for you!

  6. Haha. Well, you got half his name right. :P
    Yeah, The Woman in the Dunes (movie and book) comes highly recommended by friends too. Interesting what you say about Abe's influence. Murakami made a personal list of "top ten Japanese writers" but he didn't include Abe in it.

  7. Ah, interesting, Rise--will have to backtrack and see if I read that influence claim on Wikipedia or somewhere else more "reliable"!