Now then. Here is my long-overdue look at a novel by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who is regarded by many as their favourite novelist. I’ve put this off for a few days for two reasons. First, I simply can’t get my head around the novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun (1998), and I don’t like to write from a position of ignorance. Now, I figure, what the hell. Second, my impression of the book is not favourable, and I don’t normally write reviews of books I don’t like. As you can see.
A few thoughts, then, in lieu of a review. Caveat lector: my comments are somewhat disorganised.
Murakami has been writing novels since the 1970s, but has only been writing full time for the last twenty years or so. The publication of his novel Norwegian Wood (1987) made him a national celebrity in Japan, and he fled for American climes. He has since returned, but is regarded as a recluse by the media. While his English is excellent, he does not translate his novels himself, which is, perhaps, odd, when one considers that he has translated into Japanese several writers from the American literary canon, including Truman Capote and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Enough biographical sketchment. What about the book? The title is a good place to start. The first part of it, South of the Border, is taken from a song made famous by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. The song is about an American who finds love down Mexico way. The second part of the title derives from a form of madness whereby Siberian farmers down tools and walk endlessly ‘west of the sun’ in some kind of fugue state.
If that helps you understand the book, good luck to you. Please bear in mind that there are many varied reviews of this book on the Internet, and most of them are positive (though I’ve not properly read them; that would ruin my own thoughts).
First problem: Characterisation.
The main character, Hajime (this means ‘begin’, as any Karateka worth their attack pyjamas will tell you) is a fairly soulless, intelligent, ineffective and uninteresting person. He’s also a serial adulterer. As a reader, do I care about him? Not really.
Moreover, Hajime is virtually identical in outlook, habit and character to the protagonist of the last Murakami book I read, Kafka on the Shore (2005). I’m not averse to a writer recycling his characters — Elmore Leonard has fashioned a glittering career from this practice — but this gave me a bad feeling in my waters. I’m suspicious of a writer who presents archetypes instead of characters. A character must be a real person in the eyes of the writer, not a vehicle.
And Hajime spends most of the book as confused as the reader about what is happening in his life. Again, I’m all for this, but the writer must be careful. Murakami is (probably) attempting to make the point that life has no point; that it has a plot but no story (depending on your definition of ‘plot’ and ‘story’). Well, Mr Murakami, I got that point at the end of Kafka On The Shore and it made me about as furious as I can get with a story. Snip the last half our off a good film and ask a cinema audience if they understand the pointlessness of life yet. Here’s a crazy thought: Story and pointlessness are antagonistic, and when you lay on the pointlessness too thickly, you destroy the story. Is that what Murakami wants to say? He should try Western Union.
Second problem: Style.
I admit it. I want my fiction to be eloquent at the level of the sentence as well as that of the story. This partly explains my rabid loathing of the Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown can barely write. Try Leonard, or Lee Child, or Frederick Forsyth, or John le Carré — these guys (can’t think of a thriller-writing gal right now; hang on, du Maurier — does she count?) know how to put one word after the other in a way that pleases. Now, a writer doesn’t have to be Faulkner, Hemmingway, or David Mitchell, but the writer has to have standards. South of the Border could lose 20% of its bulk, even 30%. The narrator has a sub-Holden Caulfield meander about him. But here we have chattiness in place of neuroticism. After the first few pages, I countered my natural irritation at wasting my time on such a book with the thought that the prose style would, surely, improve. This is Murakami, whom David Mitchell — a writer I admire hugely — claims is fantastic.
The prose style did not improve, however. The inevitable happened: my eyes flew faster and faster over the sentences, baggy with redundant words, until I was skim reading. And what’s the point of skim reading? So the prose style is a problem. This could be the fault of the translator, of course. (Mitchell reads Murakami in the original Japanese.)
Third problem: See problems one and two
As Forrest Gump would say, that’s all I have to say about that. I don’t want to turn this into a ‘Look, I can see the Emperor’s ding-dong!’ moment. It’s entirely possible that whatever Murakami is trying to do with his fiction has passed through my mind without hitting any resistance. Many Murakami afficionados speak of a ‘gradual magic’ that builds during his novels. Maybe so. The only thing that built for me was boredom and a vague feeling that this was Kafka On The Shore again, only lite — and that book was lite enough. I’m sure this isn’t because Murakami’s books are too Japanese — whatever that means — because I’m moderately acquainted with Japanese history, some of its poetry, and a great deal of its cinema. I’ve never felt perplexed by Japanese culture. Perhaps, excitingly, this isn’t even a novel! Perhaps I’m caught up in a narrato-fascistic way of looking at things.
Anywho, something to think about. If a Murakami fan is reading this right now, I’d be interested to know what you think is Murakami’s ‘special something’. Reply via the comment feature, if you like.