As far as Murakami books go, After Dark (Afuta daku in Japanese) and South of the Border, West of the Sun are two of his more “normal” novels . Normal in a sense that there are no talking cats, alternate universes, or little people. Although, just because they are without seemingly supernatural creatures or events, doesn’t necessarily mean they are without mystery and intrigue.
Set in Tokyo between midnight and 7:00am, After Dark gives readers a voyeuristic opportunity to get into the minds of 5 people out and about in the city after most of its residents are in bed fast asleep.
There’s Mari Asai, a college sophomore who chooses to read her massive book in a 24-hour family restaurant. By chance, Mari meets an old acquaintance of her sister’s, Takahashi, who is on his way to his all night jazz band practice in the basement of a nearby building.
There’s Kaoru, a former pro wrestler-turned-manager of a “love hotel,” who helps a Chinese prostitute who was beaten up by her customer after checking in to the love hotel.
There is Shirakawa, a night shift “salaryman” with a penchant for Chinese prostitutes who burns the midnight oil by himself in his office, listening to classical music on his CD player, and thinking of ways to avoid meeting his wife at home.
Then there’s Eri Asai, Mari’s older, beautiful sister, who has been asleep for the past 2 months, only waking up occasionally to eat, take a shower and changer her pajamas. Readers get a chance to peek into her room to watch her beautiful sleeping form, and to enter her mind and nightmare.
Though seemingly random, the lives of the 5 characters in After Dark are interconnected in different ways.
In After Dark, readers are treated to front row seats to the lives of these 5 characters, to observe their actions and behaviors as they go about their business in the cover of night.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is the story of Hajime, an only child born in post-war Japan. Hajime narrates the events of his life, starting from grade school when he first meets a girl named Shimamoto, with whom he shared an emotional connection with. Life being what it was, Hajime grew up, moved to another town, and fell out of touch with Shimamoto.
After college, Hajime’s life became mundane and routine; stuck in a dead end job as a text book editor, Hajime forgets all about his dreams and ideals. But just when he was about to give up on life, Hajime meets the woman who would become his wife, and his life once again becomes purposeful and fulfilling.
Hajime has a loving wife and two beautiful daughters, and a booming business, but despite his good fortunes, he feels that there is something missing in his life, that something being Shimamoto.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is really just about the ordinary life of an ordinary man. Though some interesting things happens to Hajime later on in life, it is still within the realm of the everyday life of ordinary men and women. In fact, I think the pull of the story might be its simplicity and normalcy, in that everyone, at some point in their lives, can easily relate to Hajime. Everyone knows how it feels like to be full of hope and possibilities only to be stuck in a routine job, going through the motions everyday. Everyone knows how it’s like to be obsessed by young love and thoughts of “what ifs.” Everyone knows what it’s like to be tempted into doing something rash and bold, and everyone knows what it’s like to live with regret.
After Dark and South of the Border, West of the Sun, are both really just “slice of life” novellas about regular people. But even without using supernatural elements, Murakami has the power to make ordinary people’s lives seem interesting, drawing readers into their ordinary worlds and holding their attention until he has finished telling their stories.
South of the Border, West of the Sun feels like it is loosely based on Murakami’s real life. Life Hajime, Murakami also studied Literature / English in college, and later owned and worked in a jazz bar. It’s interesting to think about how much of the book is fiction and how much is really about his life.
Like his other novels, music plays a big part in After Dark and South of the Border West of the Sun. It is obvious from Murakami’s novels that music, especially jazz and classical, is a great influence in his life. As with his other novels, After Dark and South of the Border, West of the Sun get their names from song titles.
After Dark (2004); Vintage, 244 pages. Personal rating: 2.5/5
South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992); Vintage, 213 pages. Personal rating: 2.5/5