South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami (1992, translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel, 1999, 213 pages Vintage Books)
First I want to express my thanks to Dolce Bellezza for hosting the contest in which I was lucky enough to win a copy of South of the Border, West of the Sun and being generous enough to send the book internationally.
I have so far read and posted on two other novels by Murakami. After Dark was the first Japanese novel I had ever read. I think it is a good selection as a first Japanese novel. (Since then I have read works by over 50 works by Japanese authors. The more I read the more I appreciate the incredible richness of the Japanese novel.) My second work by Murakami was Dance, Dance, Dance. Dance Dance Dance is a middle book in a three part series which I read in part because I got it in a book swap. I enjoyed it but would probably have gotten more into it had I read the other book in the series, Wild Sheep Chase first. I also read about half of the short stories in his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I liked these three books but I did not become a real fan of Murakami until reading South of the Border, West of the Sun which I think is a much better book than the first two novels I read.
One of the things I personally appreciated about South of the Border, West of Sun was that the narrator and one of the central female characters were very much into the reading life. Some depictions of characters with a love of reading are convincing, some are not and Murakami's were very well done and quite convincing.
Basically, the novel is the story of the life of Hajime, a man who we first meet in his adolescence. He is your typical awkward bookish young man but that does not stop him from being obsessed with girls! In Dance Dance Dance it seemed to me that the protagonist had an immature fantasy based relationship with the women in his life. I even referred to the book as "Bookish boys lit". In South of the Border, West of the Moon we see Hajime have his first sexual encounter (described in a very erotic fashion-this is an erotic book). We see him get his first job, a boring drone type of job he has and dislikes for years. He grows out of his social awkward stage but he stays pretty much of a loner. He meets a girl while in high school, Shimamoto who is like him, an only child. She had polio as a child so she drags one leg behind her. She is very beautiful and also a reader. In Japan at the time, only children were considered to have a weak character brought on by over pampering, or so Hajime tells us. Nothing ever happens with his infatuation with Shimamoto and after high school he loses track of her. He has some other adventures but one day in a fix up date he meets the woman he will marry. This changes his life in many ways and does lead to him being a prosperous owner of two very trendy bars in Tokyo. One day nearly 20 years since he saw her last Shimamoto walks into his bar. I will not relay what happens as the plot twists are a lot of fun (and as I said there is some very clearly described erotic encounters). We get a good look at Hajime's marriage. He is a good father and over all was a pretty good husband. We learn something about how big business works in Japan. And for sure there are unsolved mysteries and marvelous happenings. South of the Border, West of the Sun is above all else a lot of fun to read.
This was the first Murakami novel that really worked for me. I am now a convert to the Murakami camp even though Kenzaburo Oe has been critical of the content of his work, not his talent. (Basically it seems to be that Murakami is considered "Too American" in his cultural frame of reference but this has zero to do with literary quality).