South of the Border, West of the Sun: A Novel by Haruki Murakami

South of the Border, West of the Sun (Vintage, 224 pages). This book (my first exposure) to Murakami starts off slow and mundane to the point of boredom, but before long you realize you are in the hands of a master. Like a marathon versus a sprint, the mundane realism allows Murakami to unveil with perfect pitch and timing the story of an only child and his long-lost childhood girlfriend (also an only child) who now, still beautiful in her late thirties, lives under mysterious circumstances and comes to see him in his upscale bar. Murakami reportedly translated into Japanese Raymond Carver, who never wrote a novel. It shows. Less is more here, and each revelation at the level of plot conceals something deeper about life. I loved the subtlety of the ending that brings to a naturalistic crescendo the novel-long tropes of walking, rainfall, and the curious eponymous “place” of the title. Inspiring-a minimalist masterpiece that inspired me with a desire to write, and to read more Murakami.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).

excerpt:

My birthday’s the fourth of January, 1951. The first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the twentieth century. Something to commemorate, I guess, which is why my parents named me Hajime–“Beginning” in Japanese. Other than that, a 100 percent average birth. My father worked in a large brokerage firm, my mother was a typical housewife. During the war, my father was drafted as a student and sent to fight in Singapore; after the surrender he spent some time in a POW camp. My mother’s house was burned down in a B-29 raid during the final year of the war. Their generation suffered most during the long war.

When I was born, though, you’d never have known there’d been a war. No more burned-out ruins, no more occupation army. We lived in a small, quiet town, in a house my father’s company provided. The house was prewar, somewhat old but roomy enough. Pine trees grew in the garden, and we even had a small pond and some stone lanterns.

The town I grew up in was your typical middle-class suburb. The classmates I was friendly with all lived in neat little row houses; some might have been a bit larger than mine, but you could count on them all having similar entranceways, pine trees in the garden, the works. My friends’ fathers were employed in companies or else were professionals of some sort. Hardly anyone’s mother worked. And most everyone had a cat or a dog. No one I knew lived in an apartment or a condo. Later on I moved to another part of town, but it was pretty much identical. The upshot of this is that until I moved to Tokyo to go to college, I was convinced everyone in the whole world lived in a single-family home with a garden and a pet, and commuted to work decked out in a suit. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine a different lifestyle.

In the world I grew up in, a typical family had two or three children. My childhood friends were all members of such stereotypical families. If not two kids in the family, then three; if not three, then two. Families with six or seven kids were few and far between, but even more unusual were families with only one child.

I happened to be one of the unusual ones, since I was an only child. I had an inferiority complex about it, as if there were something different about me, as if what other people all had and took for granted I lacked.

I detested the term “only child.” Every time I heard it, I felt something was missing from me–like I wasn’t quite a complete human being. The phrase stood there, pointing an accusatory finger at me. “Something’s not quite all there, pal,” it told me.

In the world I lived in, it was an accepted idea that only children were spoiled by their parents, weak, and self-centered. This was a given–like the fact that the barometer goes down the higher up you go and the fact that cows give milk. That’s why I hated it whenever someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had. Just let them hear I didn’t have any, and instinctively they thought: An only child, eh? Spoiled, weak, and self-centered, I betcha. That kind of knee-jerk reaction depressed me, and hurt. But what really depressed and hurt me was something else: the fact that everything they thought about me was true. I really was spoiled, weak, and self-centered.

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