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

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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

17 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami: South of the Border, West of the Sun”

  1. I found a fan, by acci­dent.
    Here is a post on Metaxucafe (I don’t get the title):


    In the com­ments an argu­ment about Hornby developed, and I said that I did not like Murakami — but I actu­ally meant Kureshi, I have nev­er read Murakami (and am unlikely to, hav­ing read your post!).

    But my point is that my com­ment drew out a real fan. If you look at the com­ments in the link I’ve pas­ted, you’ll see what I mean. So do send him the link to your post, and stand back with fin­gers in ears! I look for­ward to what tran­spires.

  2. These com­ments boxes are so like let­ter boxes, don’t you think?

    Yes, that was me post­ing on MetaxuCafe, and I was very inter­ested to get your com­ment invit­ing me to have a look at your review of Murakami’s old book.

    This was the first Murakami that I ever read, and since then I went on to read them all.

    What brought me to Murakami from Hornby in the MetaxuCafe com­ments posts is the fact that neither writer is likely to win the Nobel Prize. They are often dis­missed as light-weights by oth­er writers as well as blog­gers, because they don’t have a highly lit­er­ary style — which is the grouch you had, Ian, with this book, as far as I can see.

    But to say that each book that he pub­lishes has the same main char­ac­ter is mis­lead­ing for your read­ers. These are not Holden Caulfield clones, they are liv­ing, breath­ing indi­vidu­als who are as dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er as may be. But that’s just my opin­ion. If you don’t like his writ­ing there’s not much that a stranger like me can say that will change your mind.

    Firstly, Murakami is a fabulist. At the core of his nov­els is a mys­tery. It may be a large mys­tery, such as the one in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WOrld. It may be a small one, such as the one in South of the Border, West of the Sun, where we are con­fron­ted with this mys­ter­i­ous woman who finally dis­ap­pears, just like that. (That dis­ap­pear­ance, BTW, still sends shivers up my spine as I write this.)

    I didn’t think much or your review, as you spent too little time look­ing at the book and too much time back­ground­ing it with use­less trivia about the name of the book, which is really neither here nor there.

    I sug­gest read­ing Norwegian Wood which, as you rightly point out, caused a huge rucus in Japan when it was pub­lished. There’s a sui­cide, and that’s the mys­tery in this book. But there’s also the fact that the boy and the girl ever get togeth­er. She is a mys­tery. And I think if you can show how one per­son can be a mys­tery you are doing great things. After all, aren’t we all mys­ter­i­ous?

    He’s a fabulist and he writes about mys­ter­ies. That’s my take on him. He has a simple yet com­pletely con­vin­cing style that draws you in to the mys­tery, and leaves you stand­ing there, at a dif­fer­ent point from where you entered, with your hands in your pock­ets and your mouth open, admir­ing the strange pat­terns that adorn the walls of the small, intim­ate palace he has con­struc­ted.

  3. Hello, Ian.

    A few thoughts.

    1. Your point about trans­la­tion is sig­ni­fic­ant. I don’t speak Japanese, but I’ve heard from sev­er­al people that it’s damn near impossible to trans­late effect­ively into English, espe­cially “lit­er­ary” texts (a char­ac­ter­ist­ic it shares with Russian, I believe). Many nuances are lost. Also, I’ve read a num­ber of com­ments by Murakami junkies, being rather sniffy about the abil­it­ies of Philip Gabriel, the trans­lat­or of South of the Border (which may account for the clunky style you indenti­fy). Their trans­lat­ors of choice are Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. Again, I can’t com­ment from an informed per­spect­ive, just report­ing what I’ve read. It’s dif­fi­cult to go into this any more deeply without using emotive gen­er­al­isa­tions like “inscrut­able” so I’d bet­ter leave it there…

    2. I’d extend Dean’s point about fabulism, to sug­gest that Murakami can be com­pared in many respects to the magic real­ists. Sometimes the ‘magic­al’ aspects of his nar­rat­ives are more pro­nounced (rain­ing fish and so on); in this book, it boils down to a single ques­tion; when Shimamoto appears for the last time, is she a ghost? Remember that we have already seen her ‘dead’. Add the sex/death concept (le petit mort) and the mys­tery deep­ens. Remember that in Japan, and Asia in gen­er­al, Western con­cepts of empir­ic­al ration­al­ity can some­times take a beat­ing. Ideas of ghosts and spir­its might not be expressed day to day, but they are near­er the sur­face than they are in the West. Even if Shimamoto isn’t a ghost, the pos­sib­il­ity that she might be is there, which makes the last meet­ing rather more than an oppor­tun­ist­ic shag.

    3) Also on the East/West dif­fer­ence, remem­ber that Asian socit­ies tend to be more col­lect­iv­ist than Western ones. The exist­en­tial­ist anti-hero, who has become some­thing of a cliche in Western lit­er­at­ure (Camus, Doestoevsky, Kafka, Salinger, etc) remains a chal­lenge to the deep­est found­a­tions of Asian soci­ety. The simple fact that Hajime is an only child sym­bol­ises his oddity in a soci­ety where the indi­vidu­al is expec­ted to show obed­i­ence to the group (fam­ily, employ­er, coun­try, etc). I think Murakami’s her­oes bear some com­par­is­on with those of Michel Houellebecq; but while the lat­ter have hon­esty as their sole mit­ig­at­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics, Murakami’s at least attempt to do what is right, but find them­selves over­whelmed by events. Their big flaw is passiv­ity — is Murakami sug­gest­ing that people who act alone can­not suc­ceed, with the best of inten­tions?

  4. Hi Dean

    Thanks for your com­ments. Yes, it might well be mis­lead­ing to sug­gest that all his prot­ag­on­ists are identic­al (I based this on read­ing two of his works and I think I picked up from an inter­view that he often uses the same char­ac­ter).

    So Murakami is a fabulist. OK. I guess fabulism and I will not be best friends 🙂

    Yes, the theme about unsolved mys­ter­ies is a telling one. Abstractly, I’d describe myself as a per­son who digs mys­ter­ies (even unsolved ones), but the way that Murakami handles them is not to my taste. Tim’s com­ment men­tions the pro­fund­ity of the rain­ing fish, and I agree that, as I as read it (reader’s note: this is an epis­ode from Kafka On The Shore) part of my enjoy­ment of that moment was that I looked for­ward to the way that Murakami would explain it. When he didn’t, I was pissed off. Some oth­er story makers do this and I don’t bat an eye­lid — for example, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, whose con­tents are nev­er revealed — but there’s some­thing about Murakami that means I just don’t buy it. In anoth­er post, I said that, read­ing the first half of Kafka on the Shore, I thought that Murakami was a geni­us; dur­ing the second half, I thought he was a sham. I guess he’s some­where in between (on currrent evid­ence, two books).


  5. Hi Tim

    Thanks for your com­ments. The point about trans­la­tion is a good one, I think. I’m often frus­trated by people who bemoan the per­cent­age of for­eign books sold in the UK. Have they seen the state of some of these trans­la­tions? I’ve read two books of the Danish author Peter Hoeg, for example, and the first — Mrs Smilla — was abso­lutely diabol­ic­al. Another — Borderliners — was divine. Just recently, I’ve been read­ing Kafka’s ‘The Process’ (The Trial) and ‘Metamorphosis’. Both of these are superbly trans­lated. I guess that trans­lat­ing is a dif­fi­cult job, but some­times the product is less than use­less.

    Interesting point about the woman in South of the Border pos­sibly being a ghost. To be hon­est, I wasn’t too motiv­ated to look for altern­at­ive explan­a­tions for events at that point because I was so fed up Murakami’s wil­ful obscur­ism.

    Interesting point about Hajime being an exist­en­tial anti­hero. I noted, in passing, the sym­bol­ic power of him being an only child. He’s cer­tainly pass­ive. I don’t know. These are all good, truth­ful things that Murakami is attempt­ing but, for me, it is the abso­lute anti­dote to a good story. And a nov­el must have a story — or at least some con­tinu­ous, build­ing mean­ing that might be the ana­logue of nar­rat­ive. I can’t help but feel these aims aren’t appro­pri­ate for the nov­el-length piece. Better suited to the short story. Well, per­haps ‘appro­pri­ate’ is not the right word. I mean that the task is extremely dif­fi­cult.


  6. I must get round to read­ing some Murakami. Your review and this debate has piqued my interest. It’s a ques­tion of need­ing to decide for myself. Also, the fact is that a couple of people have men­tioned him when com­ment­ing on my book. One amazon review­er said, “The style of writ­ing reminded me very much of Murakami, par­tic­u­larly in the way objects take on their own life and exert their effect on the life of the char­ac­ters, but the tone in this con­text is more appro­pri­ately English and spare.” Not hav­ing read Murakami, but being aware of him, I took this as a com­pli­ment. Now I don’t know! Someone else men­tioned him too, but I can’t remem­ber who (it wasn’t you, was it, Ian?).

  7. Hi Roger

    Yeah, it might have been me who men­tioned Murakami. I cer­tainly men­tioned it a few days ago on this blog.

    I wouldn’t say your worked reminded me of Murakami. Quite frankly, I enjoyed your book a lot more. But if people do com­pare your stuff to Murakami I’d take it as a com­pli­ment, since he seems to be gen­er­ally well regarded…


  8. Hi, Ian, all.

    I haven’t read too much Murakami, just Wind-up Bird and Hard-boiled Wonderland and some of his short stor­ies. After Wind-up Bird, I was hop­ing to find a book of his with some form of coher­ent plot.

    One thing I do dis­agree with is your com­ments about his style–I like the ram­bling-ness of it all. It’s cer­tainly more per­son­able than some­body like Calvino. (David Mitchell’s an expert styl­ist when it comes to prose, and many tal­en­ted writers are going to come off the worse by com­par­ing them to him, esep­cially in trans­la­tion.)

    I think over­all I prefer the middle ground. I like fabulism, but groun­ded fabulism. Have you read Russell Hoban at all?

  9. Also just noticed your com­ment on David Mitchell–Number 9 Dream is almost an homage to Murakami, and I con­sider it his weak­est nov­el. BUt it has a killer last chapter and some highly mem­or­able scenes (I’m sure if I say ‘bowl­ing alley’ any­one who’s read it will remem­ber that epis­ode eas­ily.)

    Black Swan Green is pacy, funny and very read­able. Much less adven­tur­ous in con­struc­tion than the oth­er books. I’d go so far as to say it’s ‘well epic’, though nobody says ‘epic’ any­more, Jace.

  10. Thanks, Neil. I think a ram­bling style has a place, just not in a book 🙂 Seriously, a ram­bling style is OK if the over­all product works (Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-5).

    Black Swan Green is def­in­itely on my hitl­ist. I asked Sceptre if they’d send me are­v­iew copy and black­guards didn’t…


  11. They sent me one. Afraid you’re not hav­ing it though. 😉

    There’s a pretty slip­case edi­tion out for about £25. (Not much of a col­lect­or myself, but if you’re into that sort of thing…)

  12. Git 🙂

    Yes, I saw those. They’re signed, aren’t they? I was *slightly* temp­ted…

  13. Just checked out the first minute or so. Pity it isn’t a pod­cast — can’t lug my com­puter with me into town. Nice bit of Led Zep…why is the act­or talk­ing like a Bristolian? Questions, ques­tions.

  14. Interesting aside, Ian, about S5 and CinR as “ram­bling”. I see what you mean, they are pretty exist­en­tial, but at the same time they both have a strong focus to them. (And they are short! A big factor in their favour). As you know from my earli­er com­ment I have not read Murakami so don’t know if he is long or short, but I have a real issue with books that ramble AND are really long — many US books are like this, largely becuase the US style is nev­er to use one adject­ive when 10 will do (and nouni­fy a few while at it, ren­der­ing com­pre­hen­sion not hope­less but let’s just say not intu­it­ive).
    Now I am ram­bling, apo­lo­gies. Hope I have not lowered the high lit­er­ary tone of this debate.

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