I never fail to be impressed by the way Murakami captures mood and feelings. Even in his less fantastic novels, of which this is one, he draws you into a world that is all his, and so full of possibilities and connections that you feel you could grasp them if you reached out. Except you don't, because in Murakami's universe it's easier to stay put and wait than to get actively involved. It's about memories and reminiscences, about wishes and alternate realities, and if you were to reach out and touch anything, you would break the carefully crafted atmosphere, leaving nothing but some loner's neurotic ramblings about the things he should have done but sadly never did. You wouldn't want to do that, now would you?
South of the Border, West of the Sun is set in a familiar Murakami landscape where lonely men listen to jazz and classical music, get obsessed with mysterious women with death in their eyes, and crave a connection with just one fellow soul. This time around, the protagonist is Hajime, a man in his late thirties who seems to be going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Reasonably happily married and the successful owner of two jazz bars, Hajime seems to have it all, except for two things: he can't really connect to anyone, and he is haunted by memories of the women he has wronged. Most of all, he is haunted by the memory of his childhood friend Shimamoto, the only person in his life to whom he has ever been close, but of whom he lost sight at age twelve. And then Shimamoto suddenly reappears in his life, tempting him with promises of closeness and understanding and confusing him profoundly.
As stories of mid-life crises and marital infidelity go, this one is nothing out of the ordinary. It follows Hajime through his obsession with Shimamoto and his insecurities, regrets and justifications, leading him all the way to some modicum of self-discovery. So far, so generic adultery novel. What sets the book apart from countless other such books is its mood. Like other Murakami books, South of the Border, West of the Sun is a mood piece. It has a dreamlike, timeless quality, a mellow intensity, and a jazz-and-rain-fuelled melancholy which occasionally drips off the pages. It evokes loneliness and obsession in a way few other authors manage to evoke them. It's like being submerged in a bath of longing and nostalgia, and I, for one, really enjoy that sort of thing. There's something quite cathartic about it.
Much has been said about Hajime, the protagonist of South of the Border. Like many Murakami characters, Hajime is not an action hero; he spends most of the book waiting for fate to deal him a lucky card, and when he finally gets it, he doesn't really know what to do with it. Nor does he seem to notice that the cards he was initially dealt were actually quite good. He is a dreamer and a drifter, floating through a world in which he doesn't seem properly anchored, feeling rather than observing, longing rather than acting. He is haunted by memories and wallows in his own mistakes without having the guts to address them. He is not necessarily the world's most attractive protagonist, but all the same it is interesting watching the world through his eyes, sensing his guilt and sharing his cravings. And if he doesn't seem to be all that different from countless other Murakami protagonists, well, so be it. That's Murakami for you -- writing the same story featuring the same protagonist over and over again, but in a way which keeps you coming back for more.
As for Murakami's refusal to tie up the loose ends in this book, which seems to baffle certain reviewers, I like that. I like that we never find out exactly what Shimamoto has been up to for all these years. I like that her disappearance remains unexplained. I even like the fact that we never find out her first name (Hajime keeps calling her by her family name, even when they are having sex). It adds an air of detachment and mystery to the novel, which in turn just adds to its dreamlike quality. It allows you to fill in the blanks yourself, and at the end of the day, that is what I like most about good fiction -- its ability to make you fantasise and write parts of the story yourself. Maybe that's why I like Murakami so much; he draws me into brilliant moodscapes and leaves me there, thinking, feeling, wondering what I would do in a given position. Sometimes I wish I never had to leave his world, but alas, even the best jazz gets tedious after a while...