Feb 15, 2011

[Books] South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the SunHad it not been for my Communications and Humanities classes in college, I would never have encountered Haruki Murakami. What started as simply enjoying On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning lead to me jumping directly into getting through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle eventually turned into me becoming a lifelong fan of his work.

And he's a stellar writer whether we're talking about his short stories or his full length novels. Of course given (1) he's a Japanese author and (2) all of his books require skilled translation before being released outside of Japan, his books tend to be rather pricey regardless of length. Over the years, I've amassed a respectable collection of most of his books of which I'm still getting around to actually reading. So yeah, I finally bought a lot of the thinner titles that didn't seem quite as cost effective as his lengthier works, but what can a fan boy do, right?

And man has the trip been rewarding, regardless. I've now taken to trying to get some reading time in during my train rides home and I've limited myself to books that are easy to manage with one hand. Thus the inevitable addition of my slimmer Murakami books to my reading queue as much as this gesture seems a tad arrogant given your average MRT rider. You can only imagine the looks I get from other riders when I whip out my Murakami book with their strange covers and bizarre plot synopses at the back. Fun.

Mosaic: Haruki MurakamiImage by thepluginguy via FlickrSouth of the Border, West of the Sun is a relatively short novel by Haruki Murakami given it's only 224 pages whereas the likes of Dance Dance Dance and Kafka on the Shore were well over 400 pages each.

The book focuses on the central character of Hajime, an only child. In his younger years, he met another only child, Shimamoto, and the two fast became best friends. But as they grew up, their plans also lead to them growing apart with Hajime moving away for college. We continue to follow Hajime as he learns to build relationships with women other than Shimamoto as he continues to determine what he wants out of life.

Eventually, we meet Hajime as a 36 year old man with a wife - Yukiko, two kids and a successful business. At this point in his life when things seem to be going well enough, Shimamoto re-enters his life and totally turns things around. Now Hajime finds himself remembering his old boyhood crush on his best friend and tries to come to terms with what it means to have Shimamoto back in his life.

When it comes to translated works like Murakami's novels, it's hard to determine where the credit should actually go. Is it enough to attribute the success of the novel solely to the genius of Haruki Murakami himself? Or should equal credit be given to the likes of Peter Gabriel and other translators that Murakami works with such as Jay Rubin? All these elements come together in terms of the final work that we English readers outside of Japan get to experience and so you'd think that recognition and credit needs to be spread around.

Take for example this amazing passage from the book's early chapters:
But I didn't understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human beyond repair.
Now come on - how can you not give credit to the translator right there, right? That's not just directly translating the original words of the author but also trying to figure out how to retain the spirit, tone and essence of the author's original thought in a similar prose-like style akin to how I can only speculate Murakami originally wrote it.

To date, this is probably the shortest Murakami book I've ever read (and I'm not counting his short stories as individual works here), but it was definitely one of the more striking ones, as far as I'm concerned. I think it's because of how we all have that best friend character that we can't help but think "What If..." about, especially in queer circles. Here Murakami starts with what is essentially a fundamental scenario that so many of us have gone through and explores it in a manner that only he can manage.

And there's so much more to this story that just the almost love story between Hajime and Shimamoto. In fact, Shimamoto is away from the reader's view for most of the book when you get down to it. Instead you get to meet other characters in Hajime's life including the other women that he first gets involved with outside of his childhood friendship with Shimamoto.

As with other Murakami books, it's strictly for adults or teenagers with a good degree of adult supervision. The book does depict sexual encounters in relatively graphic detail, but not in a manner that makes it feel smutty or like the self-indulgent erotica we see so commonly, especially for LGBT-centric titles for some reason.

At it's core, this is a love story, like so many of Murakami's other books. But again, he explores a different variety of love that is as real and powerful as any we may have experience in our own lives. He explores it with his usual brand of poetic whimsy that combines diverse mundane elements of our day-to-day lives and sews them together into a stunning tapestry that transcends language. I really enjoyed this book and I know I'll probably get around to re-reading this book in the future because of how much I enjoyed it.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is a powerful and key addition to any Murakami collection and a fitting read for those of you with Valentine's Day hangovers. It gets 4.5 special cocktails at Hajime's bars out of a possible 5. For those eager to get into this novel right away, you can download the Kindle edition of the book right now or run to your local retailer.

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  1. I am sadly ignorant of this author, and while it may not be in my general category of preferred reading choices, I am now gonna have to try and check some of these works out. However I am curious about your take on a book I read recently Vegas Knights by Matt Forbeck. If you ever care to turn you analytical gaze of geek-dom at it I'd be much obliged. I thoroughly enjoyed it myself and just started on another work by him; Amortals.

    Let me know if you'd like to borrow a copy! Awesome review!

  2. @Daedaleus - Glad you enjoyed the review! Haruki Murakami was a pleasant surprise for me despite my mainly science fiction and fantasy leanings at the time. Good luck once you get around to trying him out!

    As for Matt Forbeck, I'll see if I can get around to it. The Kindle edition is under $5, so that's a good start, haha. I just have a lot in queue right now, so give me time.