'South of the Border, West of the Sun' is the story of Hajime, the narrator and central character, who we follow from early adolescence to his mid-thirties in Tokyo, where he goes from awkward schoolboy to lonely twenty-something to a married, jazz bar-owning early middle-aged man. The story starts with his quiet friendship with a similarly lonely girl called Shimamoto, with whom he plays records after school and feels his first confusing feelings of teenage lust. He then moves schools and they lose touch. The story then moves forward detailing his few failed love affairs, his sad, maladapted twenties and then marriage and fatherhood, before Shimamoto reappears, just in time for his tragically-impending mid-life crisis.
This is a lovely book, with such a poignant, wistful, quiet feel that opening the pages was like stepping beneath the surface of a pool of cool water. There's a few of Murakami's characteristic quirks - intense loneliness, alienation and some mental health issues, as well as deliciously regular descriptions of music, cocktails and the natural scenery - but nothing compared to his more exploratory and experimental works like 'Kafka on the Shore'. Compared to those, this is very straightforward. The feelings of love and longing that sweep thought this book are so eloquent and sensual that it aches with a romantic melancholy that was quite a break from the world. The writing is also beautiful; I know I've said this before on this blog, but I'm a bit obsessed by the way that Asian writers write so simply and yet say so much; you can really feel the spaces and lacunae between words, and even letters, in a way that just isn't present in non-translated fiction:
'She wore a white dress and an over-sized navy-blue jacket. A small fish-shaped brooch graced its collar. The dress was simple in design, with no decorations of any kind, yet on her you'd swear it was the world's most expensive dress. She was more tanned than the last time I'd seen her.
'I thought you'd never come here again,' I said.
'Every time I see you, you say the same thing,' she said, laughing. As always she sat down next to me at the bar and rested both hands on the counter. 'but I did write you a note saying I wouldn't be back for a while, didn't I?'
'For a while is a phrase whose length can't be measured. At least by the person who's waiting,' I said. 'But there must be times when that word's necessary. Situations when that's the only possible word you can use,' she said.'
The structure was also great: we start with Shimamoto and then move away from her, but the reader is just waiting for the moment when we circle back and those hanging questions are resolved. Not to give too much away, but the ending fits beautifully, and I love that the characters' hands are never fully revealed.
The failing with this book that I found was that, despite its beauty and longing, it didn't really move me in any significant way. Several of his other books have had me sobbing and questioning my whole life's decisions, but not is one. I felt more distant from this one, but maybe that's just because I've never had a mid-life crisis. I guess this is one of the problems that comes from setting your bar quite so high! A lovely book, but, in my opinion, not Murakami's best.
Title: 'South of the Border, West of the Sun'
Author: Haruki Murakami
Format: Paperback, 192 pages, and I bought it.