Tag Archives: January in Japan

South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel)

imgres-2It’s always a pleasure to pick up a Murakami.  How can you not want to read on after this understated opening:

My birthday is January 4th 1951.  The first week of the first month of the second half of the twentieth century.  Something to commemorate, I suppose, which is why my parents named me Hajime – “Beginning” in Japanese…

This is the thing with Murakami, his writing is understated and yet you get so much out of it; it’s incredibly rewarding to read.  With South of the Border, West of the Sun Murakami has managed, as he often does, to achieve depth with such brevity.  

As a youngster Hajime meets the love of his life, an only child like himself, Shimamoto understands him like no-one else, even without long conversation they seem bound by something more than mutual understanding and emotion.  Alas, his family moves house, they go to different schools and drift apart.  Hajmie meanders through adolescence and his 20s, always looking for more meaning, but not putting in any effort to find it.  His thoughts are constantly on Shimamoto and he’s always restless.  Then he meets his wife, Yukiko, and his life turns a corner.  He opens two jazz bars and becomes a successful businessman.  Just as he’s settling down in his late 30’s, Shimamoto comes back into his life when she turns up at his bar one night.  Despite that this is what he has always wanted, her return confuses him.

A little aside here; I do wonder how much of himself Murakami wrote into this book.  Born in the post-war baby boom, jazz bar owner, obsessive swimmer (Murakami is a ritualistic runner).  Just a thought..back to the review.

This book touches on several themes including the reliability of memory, loneliness and alienation in a big world but mostly its about consequences and dealing with your decisions and actions.  Shimamoto’s mantra (repeated at least 3 times in the 187 pages) is:

…there are things in this world that can be changed and some that can’t.  And time passing is one thing that can’t be redone.

There are a couple of occasions when Hajime questions why he does certain things and they are really poignant moments – to the point where I wanted him to learn his lesson.

 …that I could hurt somebody so badly she could never recover.  That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

Maybe I’ve just lost the chance to ever be a decent human being.  The mistakes I’d committed – maybe they were part of my very make-up an inescapable part of my being.

Knowing Hajime’s past actions and his feelings for Shimamoto, the story builds to a predictable point with a classic Murakami (and maybe Japanese, I’m not well read enough to be certain) magical, other-worldly scene after which Hajime’s life as he knew it, falls apart.  There is no escaping his actions now, there is no escaping himself.  But he gets a chance at living up to his name and beginning again.  He decides he will finally take responsibility for the ones who care about him most rather than being so selfish, but will he really? Probably not.

And here’s the thing with this book, I loved it, but I really disliked Hajime.  He is egotistical, self-centred, disrespectful to all his female companions other than Shamimoto and wallows far too much in his own self-pity.  I had no patience for his behaviour.  But then it wouldn’t have been the same book had he been an all-round nice guy, reliable husband and father, nice to old ladies and kittens.  So despite not liking the main character, I have to admit that Murakami has done it again and sucked me in with his poetic prose, might need to raid my shelf for more!

I read this for January in Japan

January in Japan

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Strangers – Taichi Yamada

StrangersStrangers by Taichi Yamada is touted as a ghost story.  Although the story does feature spirits, describing it as a ghost story is oversimplified; this is not a creepy or even remotely scary tale, it is much deeper than that.  In this book memories of things past and the loneliness they spawn manifest themselves as spirits, eating at the core of the main character turning him into a shell and shadow of his former self.  It is haunting, but not in a creepy or frightening way, it is more about the mental weight of grief and loneliness and how it can cause a physical reaction.

48 year old Harada has been an orphan since he was 12.  He is recently divorced, almost estranged from his 19 year old son and feeling some dissatisfaction with his work as a television scriptwriter.  He lives alone in his office/apartment in a block overlooking a busy highway.  During the day, the block is occupied by office workers, but at night there is only Harada and a strange young woman called Kai who live there.  Yamada manages to capture the eeriness of being practically alone in a large building really well.

…This feeling of too much quiet first came over me on a night near the end of July as I sat working at my desk a little after eleven.  A chill ran down my spine, and I felt as though I were suspended in the middle of a vast dark void, utterly alone..

Hmm, I’m not sure I would cope with that very well.

One day Harada decides to go back to the run-down district where he grew up.  Something draws him to a theatre where he encounters another customer who resembles his late father as the time he died, he feels very uncomfortable about the whole episode, but when invited to leave with the man, he follows.  Here begins the re-kindling of Harada’s relationship with his long-dead parents who look the same as they did the day they died in a motorcycle accident.  He knows this encounter is somewhat strange, but he is also overjoyed to see them.  He has missed his parents, he has been lonely without them and cannot help but visit them regularly.

At about the same time Harada strikes up a relationship with the only other night resident of his building, the mysterious Kai, who is as lonely as he is.  As he spends more time with Kai and his parents, he looses focus on his work, but he begins to feel less alone in the world, as though his life might be getting back on track.  Little does he realise his problems are only just starting.  Yamada adds great twists and suspense just at the point where you wonder where the story is leading.  I don’t know if it is a Japanese thing, but the ending is quite downbeat, not in a disappointing way, just leaving you wondering whether Harada could ever be happy again

This book is surreal at times, not least the thought of a grown, sane man entertaining the idea of spending leisure time with his dead parents.  However, there is something quite mesmerizing about this it.  The prose is sparse but pacey.  Yamada builds Harada’s story with authenticity, you can understand how his grief, loneliness and disappointments may lead him to unravel and become slightly unhinged.  I haven’t read that much Japanese literature, so I can’t make comparisons, but it reminded me a little in tone of Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills which I absolutely adored.  Strangers is equally as interesting and will keep you wondering long after the last chilling scenes.

I read this book as part of January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List

January in Japan

January in Japan

What better way to start a new year than to join a shared reading/blogging event to blow away the cobwebs of the festive season and begin the year with real purpose? With that in mind and having enjoyed German Literature Month in November, I signed up for January in Japan, hosted by Tony from Tony’s Reading List.  He’s even created a dedicated blog for the event, so if you are interested in finding out who’s taking part and what they are reading here’s where to go: January in Japan.  Tony has also added some very comprehensive write-ups on Japanese writers, all so helpful if you are embarking on your first major foray into Japanese literature!

January in Japan

The great thing about joining a shared reading event like this one is that the hosts don’t mind if you read one book or several.  Lucky for me, because as much as I would love to read lots of Japanese books this month I am limiting myself to a more realistic two titles!

StrangersStrangers by Taichi Yamada

This is essentially a ghost story about a middle-aged, jaded and divorced, TV scriptwriter who returns one night to the rundown district of Tokyo where he grew up.  He meets a man who looks exactly like his long-dead father. And so begins his ordeal, as he’s thrust into a reality where his parents appear to be alive at the exact age they had been when they had died many years before.  Could be creepy.  There is a huge following for this book.  I first heard it mentioned by the publisher and blogger, Scott Pack.  Since then I’ve heard lots of praise for it.

imgres-2South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

Hajime, an only child growing up in post-war Japan had a friend in Shimamoto, also an only child. Together they spent long afternoons listening to her father’s record collection. But when his family moved away, the two lost touch.  Now he is in his thirties. After a decade of drifting he has found happiness with his wife and two daughters, and success running a jazz bar. Then Shimamoto reappears and Hajime is catapulted into the past, causing him all sorts of problems.

This book has been sat on our shelf for some time, so reading it not only adds to January in Japan, but also helps towards reading some of the neglected books in my house.

I will post the first review for January in Japan in the next few days and look forward to finding out what other contributors have chosen to read.