A Japanese jazz symphony: a top-of-the-hat review of South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

I have always liked jazz music but I don’t think I qualify as a fan. But this book seems like a jazz symphony to me (I’m kind of clueless about jazz. Is there something like a “jazz symphony?”) It’s smooth, mysterious and leaves you thirsting for more.

I firmly believe that you don’t choose your books; the books choose you. Yeah, I’m one of them people who think that there is no such thing as a coincidence. So, this SOTBWFTS (short form, bidu) was a gift from a friend on my birthday.

Anyways, I jumped on the novel like a piece of cake: long denied, much remembered. Since it’s a slim volume, I’m done with it in 9 hours with equally slim breaks in between.

At first, you wonder where is the story going? But I’m as usual getting ahead of myself. The story is of an average man, Hajime, who cannot forget the superbly mysterious and beautiful Shimamoto (ironically, he can’t remember her first name: this is her last name.) Hajime meets Shimamoto in kindergarten and they both bond over the fact that they are “only” children of their parents. It’s a beautiful friendship with music playing (quite literally, since they listen to music most of the time) a major part in their friendship. Polio-infected Shimamoto is the one girl who makes a very deep impression on his young mind. When Shimamoto moves out of his life, Hajime goes on with his life in a very on-the-surface manner. He does the regular things: school, high school sweetheart, college, a dead-end job, find the girl who would be his wife, dabble in business, and become successful. But you get the feeling that something is missing. When one day a stunning woman walks into his club on a rainy evening, everything changes. The woman is Shimamoto. Now, looking more stunning than ever. Hajime is torn between an average life and his prospects with Shimamoto. She appears on rainy evenings to tantalise him. One day, just when he makes a choice, she disappears forever.

Hajime is the everyman in this novel. It’s his life we identify with. Shimamoto is the symbol of all that we want and cannot have. She appears from time to time in our lives teasing us with the prospect. But she is like the rain: she can appear but she cannot stay. If she does, she will destroy everything. And the novel is a testiment to the fact that her short stay was quite destructive for the protagonist.

This novel is considered to be one of his most mature works. I couldn’t help but compare it with Norwegian Wood. The youth flavour of Norwegian Wood is not to be seen here. But what you can see is a mature writer and a mature man. It’s like a sequel to Norwegian Wood. Naoko grows up and become Shimamoto. Toru and Hajime are the same – the passive protagonist –appearing again and again in all Murakami novels. Even in a very adventurous novel like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist remains the calm guy who makes spaghetti. All Murakami protagonists wait for life to happen to them, somehow calm, somehow untouched like the eye of the storm.

All the references to music especially Jazz are there usual. It makes the story all the more poignant. This is not one of them rambunctious novels that use mind-bending narrative pyrotechnics to tell the story and grab the attention of the reader. It’s one of those quiet books that makes a deep impression on your mind. It sure did on mine.

Rating: : * * * * * = Khallas (Deadly)

My Rating System:
* * * * * = Khallas (Deadly)
* * * * = Bindaas (Great)
* * * = Jhakaas (Good)
* * = Timepass(Okay)
* = Bakwaas (Avoid it)

20 thoughts on “A Japanese jazz symphony: a top-of-the-hat review of South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

  1. Murakami ran a jazz bar, Peter Cat, between 1974 and 1982. Music is a thread which runs through his novels. Dance, Dance, Dance (Beach Boys), Norwegian Wood (Beatles)and South of the Border, West of the Sun (first part is a song by Nat King Cole)are all names of songs. I’ve read ‘The Elephent Vanishes’ and enjoyed it immensely. I feel Murakami may have been influenced by his father (he was a buddhist priest), and hence his protagonists are not unduely perturbed my the travails in their lives.

  2. Hi Mru, thanks for Murakami’s background info! And you made an interesting comment about the Buddhist influence on his protagonists. The thing is Murakami is neither Christian nor Buddhist.

  3. When I said he ‘may’ have been influenced by his father I didn’t mean realigious influnce. I meant his father as a man. His protagonists have a near nirvana like quality about them which is difficult to miss.

  4. I wonder if this comment will even be read, seeing thats I’m 2 yrs late 🙂 Anyways I just read the book and was browsing through peoples thoughts when I came across your blog.. Seems like you are a fan of Haruki Murakami’s works..

    I just read South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami. It was a decent read but I was left wanting. I feel it was because its a translation. Can a translation ever be as good as the original? I wonder. Its like watching a movie with subtitles, sometimes you are caught between watching the movie and reading the subtitles. You are concentrating so much that you can never just go with the flow of the movie. But I’m keen of giving him another try, which book would you recommend? I’m thinking either Wind Up Bird Chronicles or Kafka on the shore.. I like the titles 🙂

    My thoughts on the book: South of the Border, West of the Sun

    1. Murakami is not everyone’s cuppa tea. Reading HM is like getting into a rollercoaster ride. It should start out slow and then gain momentum. Start with Norwegian Wood, the slow one. 🙂

  5. a good review. i started reading murakami when i was going through a weird phase. and came out unscathed.
    though i don’t particularly buy new books, will surely pick this up.

    1. Hi bedazzled, thanks so much! 🙂 Please read South of the Border…. not because of the title of my blog but for the intensity of the writing. 🙂

    2. Hey bedazzled! You must read it! A book worth the newsprint it’s printed on. Just undiluted fabulousness!

  6. I just finished reading SOTBWOFS. And I agree with every word you say. It was a dream, and I did not want to wake up.

    1. Hey Mala! I know! I am so glad you like it. It’s such a quiet and beautiful book. Everyone who had read it has fallen in love with it. 🙂

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