Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: South of the Border, West of the Sun

Title: South of the Border, West of the Sun
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Romance, Drama, Contemporary
Rating: ★★★

South of the Border, West of the Sun

I am a discriminating reader. Even if I love an author unreservedly, I don’t go around loving everything that he writes. After all, in a writer’s compendium of works, not everything will be explosively brilliant; some of them will turn out as duds.

To many Murakami-experienced readers, South of the Border, West of the Sun definitely reads like the spiritual successor to his acclaimed novel Norwegian Wood. Both don’t have a trace of magical realism (or surrealism?) in them that is commonplace in the majority of Murakami’s oeuvre; they deal with the quotidian lives of average people, with subtle twists that can instantly establish a connection with the readers.

Norwegian Wood is an amazing read, and for some time it made me believe that Murakami is indeed a versatile writer—he’s dangerously good when it comes to surreal stuff, but he can surely soar with a story that is not necessarily situated between dreams and reality. However, his sophomore work that falls into the latter category just proves to me that his forte is still with the ‘weird’ (not that I’m saying Norwegian Wood is a fluke, though).

The gist of South of the Border, West of the Sun is this: two childhood friends are separated by quite run- of-the-mill circumstances, until later in their lives—when the guy is already a successful jazz club proprietor and a family man—their paths converge again, sending everything haywire.

Now, the reason why ordinary love stories are not my cup of tea is that I’ve always been smitten with fantasy/science fiction. Fascinated by magic and out of this world material at an early age, I developed a penchant for fantastical juke-in-the-boxes embedded in the stories, things that can surprise you in a way ordinary stuff can’t, and events that can make your imagination go wild and bring you to different places like Narnia or Oz or Wonderland. It doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t go for the normal stuff. It’s just I don’t dig those with tales reminiscent of neighbor gossip stories. :p Norwegian Wood doesn’t sound like one, and add to that Murakami’s flair for the quirky, poetic words, and you can get a thumb up from me.

Anyway, I have to admit that SOTBWOTS is not one of Murakami’s better works. I’ve read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running so I’ve caught glimpses of his personal life: he opens a jazz bar, loves music, loves literature. When I read that Hajime, the main protagonist, also opens a jazz bar, loves music, and loves literature, I found myself a little disappointed. It’s true that an author sometimes puts bits of himself into his characters, but Hajime is a literary Xerox copy of Murakami. Gary Stu? Perhaps.

There is nothing much to say about the plot, too, as you may have guessed from the gist I provided above. But what I liked about it is of course Murakami’s ever-tasteful choice of words, and the bittersweetness that lies underneath every thought that he puts on page. Almost every idea he shares will make you question what you believed in the past, and it will also make you look back at the things you’ve taken for granted. His humor, which I’ve always loved ever since reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is also peppered in some of the passages.

All in all it’s still a decent read. There are a few haunting moments that I liked, but nothing that can leave indelible marks in my memories.

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