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.

Published by

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):

    http://metaxucafe.com/cafe/content/article/31_songs/

    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).

    Cheers
    Ian

  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.

    Best
    Ian

  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…

    Best
    Ian

  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…

    Cheers,
    Ian

  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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