Author: Haruki Murakami
Publish Date: October 11th 2011 (first published 1992)
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
This was my second Murakami (the first being Norwegian Wood), and I gave both of them the same rating, but for fairly different reasons. Norwegian wood I liked because it was a great introduction to Japanese literature and the Japanese way of life, and I really liked its atmosphere. With SOTBWOTS (sorry, but this abbreviation is necessary, the title is just way too long…) the story could arguably have been set in any place, it was more the message of this story and the delicate metaphors that made me like it.
SOTBWOTS is a story about a pretty average Japanese guy. It follows him from the young age of twelve into his late thirties, and even though it’s a short book, it holds a lot of meaning. When he’s 12, he falls in love with a girl called Shimamoto, later on he breaks another girl’s heart and finally he marries a woman and has two kids with her, opening two jazz bars and seemingly living a great life. That is, until Shimamoto appears back in his life – or does she?
Murakami is known for including magical realism in his work, and even though it’s more obvious in his later books, one could definitely interpret this book that way. Many people disagree and say that Shimamoto does actually exist and is not just a fragment of the main character (Hajime) ‘s imagination, but in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter. The point is not whether or not Shimamoto actually appears in Hajime’s Jazz bar one rainy evening, it’s more about what she represents.
And that is exactly what makes this book so beautiful, in my opinion. Shimamoto represents hope, something that could be, while Izumi, the girl Hajime hurt so badly, reappears again as well, representing the past. Trapped between the two, Hajime struggles to enjoy his present life with his wife and children, he finds himself haunted by the past and constantly chasing an alternative future he knows he can’t really have. It’s a story that many people can relate to, even though I think older people will understand this problem even better.
Shimamoto is a very interesting character, mainly because she is so mysterious. Hajime knows absolutely nothing about her life after the age of 12, and Shimamoto refuses to tell him anything. But that’s how it goes with the future, doesn’t it? It’s mysterious and you never really know anything about it until you actually experience it. The character of Hajime is probably one of the reasons why I’m “only” giving this book 4 stars. Especially during the first half of the book he is an absolutely despicable human being. He is average and boring, he cheats on his girlfriends and lies to them about it, and yet he can’t truly love a woman unless she doesn’t have anything unique, something she can give “only to him”. He grew on me a bit more towards the end of the book, however, and I think he made the right decision at the end.
The plot isn’t particularly exciting or action-packed, but that’s not at all what this book is trying to be, so you can’t really fault it for that. That being said, I tend to prefer slower, character driven books anyway. The book is full of beautiful metaphors that are linked in a way, like the rain and the desert, the excitement of what could lie beyond the border and the disappointment of finding out it’s actually “just” Mexico, and many more. You will understand if you’ve read this book.
South of the Border, West of the Sun tells a story about life. It pictures the struggle of wanting to be more, wanting life to be more, and having to settle for what it is, to live with the mistakes one has done with the past, and to come to terms with one’s own personality. As Hajime says at one point:
I seriously believed I could escape myself – as long as I made the effort. But I always hit a dead end. No matter where I go, I still end up me.
If you haven’t read any Murakami before, I think this would be an excellent place to start. And if you have, but haven’t read this book yet, please do. You’ll probably enjoy it.