Playing Murakami Bingo With South of the Border, West of the Sun

Aside from J.K. Rowling and Cheryl Strayed, Haruki Murakami is the main author I turn to when I need a comfort read. There’s something quiet and soothing about his writing. He often has his characters swim laps, evoking  long, stretched-out strokes and a kind of relaxing repetition. As a (lapsed) swimmer, I get a similar feeling from Murakami’s writing. Starting one of his books always feels like diving in and taking the first few glorious strokes after a long absence from the pool. There’s that refreshing “ah yes, this,” and then a comforting rhythm and precision as I pull myself through the water, taking the same number of strokes each lap. As with swimming, I pretty much know what to expect when I crack open a new-to-me Murakami book; whether it’s set firmly in reality or involves talking cats and prophecies, I know there are going to be certain themes, characters, and occurrences. (These similarities are so common that Grant Snyder created a Haruki Murakami Bingo board.)

Haruki Murakami Bingo

I recently read my sixth Murakami novel in a moment when I very much needed something comforting, and South of the Border, West of the Sun did the trick; it had all of the Murakami-isms I love, and I had fun not only playing Murakami Bingo, but making my own list of all the motifs I spotted:

  1. Love of cats
  2. Swimming
  3. Whiskey
  4. Jazz and classical music
  5. Girl with tiny ears
  6. Mysterious woman
  7. A main character who likes to read, gets decent grades without really trying, and is kind of a solitary loner
  8. Quotes like “I’m just an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life,”
  9. And “Lead a well-regulated life, never overdo anything, and watch your diet: that was my motto.”

Although I really enjoyed South of the Border, West of the Sun, it doesn’t stand out to me as one of Murakami’s best books. Although I just read it a few weeks ago, images and emotions have stuck with me far more than the actual plot — which, as Goodreads reminds me, is about a man, Hajime, who has built a comfortable life for himself; he has a wife and two daughters, and he owns two successful jazz clubs. But when Shimamoto, the lonely girl he loved and lost as a teen, reappears in his life with an inescapable secret, his life takes a strange turn. In typical Murakami fashion, the ending left me a bit baffled and confused.

I probably wouldn’t recommend South of the Border, West of the Sun to readers who are trying to figure out where to start reading Murakami (I’m going to stick with Norwegian Wood, followed by Kafka on the Shore, and then The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), but it’s definitely worth a read for people who are already fans!

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11 thoughts on “Playing Murakami Bingo With South of the Border, West of the Sun

  1. I just read my first Murakami recently (Norwegian Wood), and am interested in forging on! It’s always nice to have an author to turn to, when you just want something that works, and you know you’ll like! Luckily Murakami has such a long back list 🙂

  2. I’ve only read two Murakami novels, but even I snickered at some of the bingo spaces, especially “weird sex” and “urban ennui.” Also, #8 on your list SO MUCH.

    Like Katie said, it’s fantastic that one of your most comforting authors has so many books for you to fall back on. 🙂

  3. This is fascinating and definitely reminds of all the traits of Tsukuru in Colorless! And – I’ve been looking for another Murakami to try (I loved 1Q84, Colorless was just OK for me)…maybe it’s Norwegian Wood.
    And – I hear you on the first few laps of long, smooth freestyle right after diving in. And, then the shoulder burn starts around the 200-300 mark for me after a long absence – ha!

    • I have to confess that I’ve been too intimidated to read 1Q84! But if you liked its elements of magical realism and didn’t like the more mundane Colorless Tsukuru, you might want to try Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Norwegian Wood is my favorite, but it’s the most firmly set in the “real” world.

  4. Wait…what?! Murakami has characters swimming? How did I not know this? I must read now because swimming is the only road to keeping insanity at bay. I’m looking to you- which is his best book for someone who’s never read him before?

    • I usually recommend Norwegian Wood as a first Murakami, but I can’t remember if the main character goes swimming — and my copy is buried in a box somewhere, so I can’t check! I know Colorless Tsukuru has some good swimming passages, and it would also make a pretty good place to start.

  5. I’ve still only read 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru, but I really loved them both. I’m not sure I found them soothing, perhaps because the characters seemed so lonely, but I would still love to read more of his books 🙂

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