South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

An adult book!  I had to read one, or I thought I might just lose it after this long YA binge I’ve been on.  South of the Border, West of the Sun one was loaned by a friend a couple of months ago, so I read it this week as a personal treat for myself.  Now it’ll be back to the same old, same old kids stuff.

In my experience there are two kinds of people in this world: fans of Haruki Murakami, and those who haven’t read him yet.  I haven’t met anyone who has read something by this Japanese master (he’s been translated into over a dozen languages) and not loved it.  In fact, I avoided him for a long time because I didn’t want to not like him – I was afraid I’d have to go through life disagreeing with people I otherwise quite respect (this happened with Ian McEwan: I hated Saturday and only mildly enjoyed Atonement.  Everyone else seems to love him, which is a big puzzle for me).

I finally gave in and read Windup Bird Chronicle by Murakami about a year ago, and happily, fell in love.  It was beautiful, elegant, magical and mysterious.  I think beguiling is a very good word for Murakami’s writing.  I was fascinated with the blend of Japanese and Western culture, the parallels in theme and structure, the stories-within-a-story, and above all the mesmerizing tone he creates by having reality and common sense just around the next corner.

So my second dip into the Murakami cannon is South of the Border, West of the Sun, and I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much.  It’s definitely still beguiling – he specializes it seems in disconnected love stories, and women who refuse to make their past clear but who are inexplicably wealthy, vulnerable, and gorgeous.  South of the Border was quite similar to Windup Bird in many ways, but it did not have the magical element or the complexity of interwoven plots and character – it was more like a long, contemplative novella.

South of the Border is about Hajimi, an only child born in 1951.  When he is twelve, he becomes good friends with a new girl in his class, Shimamoto.  Shimamoto is an only child like him, and their loneliness brings them together.  Their intimate, pre-adolescent relationship lasts a few months before his family moves away and they lose contact with one another.  Hajimi grows up always feeling the absence of Shimamoto.  She doesn’t re-enter his life until he is thirty-six, happily married with two daughters, and the owner of two successful jazz clubs.  Though Hajimi is very content with his life, he cannot resist Shimamoto, and the deep intuitive connection they share.  Shimamoto refuses to reveal anything about herself or her past to Hajimi, and she remains a mystery to him and the reader: elegant, lonely and with a deep aura of sadness.  Through many encounters, the two develop a relationship that goes beyond friendship and love.

Murakami has a knack for creating characters that are both highly visible for the reader, but that always remain unusual and disconnected.  The dialogue seems to constantly wander around the point, giving the whole novel a feeling of unreality.  Perhaps this obtuseness is partly due to the Japanese culture Murakami writes from – but I am quite sure he also creates it deliberately to lend an odd, surreal feel to his books.

I enjoyed this surrealist tone in Windup Bird – but that was a longer, more complex novel.  In South of the Border Shimamoto’s refusal to reveal her past drove me a little bonkers, especially as it remained a mystery even at the novel’s close (though her fate was guessed at by the main character).  I admit I became frusterated and a little petulant, thinking that maybe it’s just mystery for mystery’s sake.  Maybe Murakami doesn’t know what the mystery is – he just wants a mysterious character.  And I resented that a little, especially as I had already encountered it in another novel by him that I liked more.

I can’t say I would recommend this book – though I would still recommend the author.  That said, I have heard that most people like the first Murakami book they read the best.  I’m hoping that’s not because they are all composed of the same elements again and again (as I find with John Irving, Miriam Keyes and Jodi Picoult – authors who I enjoy, but who are best on the first read as there is a significant repetition in theme, style, and character type).  I will have to give him another chance to be sure.  He is certainly a complex and sensitive writer who leaves you with many thoughts and ideas to tease out long after you are done reading.

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