South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami is a story of childhood soulmates, who drift apart in adolescence before meeting again years later. Hajime, our narrator, and Shimamoto meet as children and, as two rare only children in their neighbourhood, they naturally develop a bond; but, as time progresses, this bond deepens to something fuller. They listen to music and talk for hours about everything and anything, with searching intensity and without self-consciousness; but, when his family moves away, they eventually lose touch. As is often the case with Murakami’s protagonists, in the following years he perfectly captures Hajime’s heady, self-centred concerns, from adolescence into early adulthood. After years without direction, and failed or meaningless relationships where he has caused great hurt, Hajime has finally settled down with a loving and patient wife, and two children; this is when Shimamoto reappears in his life under strange circumstances, beautiful and enveloped in mystery, throwing the real value of everything he has built up into question. What follows is a quietly intense and deeply moving story as Hajime tries to understand what has happened, in both her life and his, in these missing years.
Murakami’s writing about Hajime’s feelings for Shimamoto is beautiful; while the other key female characters in a way represent the different things Hajime needs, or thinks he needs, in women at the time – security, adoration, contentment, or great sex – the intensity and depth of his feelings for Shimamoto is palpable, almost spiritual at times, and unequivocally mutual. There are beautiful passages with conversations of great depth, and simple, subtle moments that are filled with such tenderness and desire.
This is a story which explores how the past can haunt us and come rocketing back into our life with great consequence, the nature of deep and lasting love and desire, idealisation versus reality, the regrets we harbour for the things we did or didn’t do, and the profound effect people can have on each other, while also exploring more philosophical themes such as the nature of human connection, questions about morality, and whether people can truly change. Particularly affecting is the manifestation captured by Murakami of the void that can be left in people when they are hurt so deeply by someone or something that happened to them.
True to Murakami’s usual narrative style, the tone moves between direct, plain-speaking narration and more poetic or dreamlike prose; in this story in particular, there is an ebb and flow to the writing as key characters come and go in Hajime’s life. Hajime’s journey as a narrator moves from one of self-centeredness to self-awareness, as he questions everything his life has become and reflects on his past actions.
I think Murakami is a bit of a divisive author, and I know there has been debate in recent years about his writing of women, which I am keen to read more about. My own interpretation is that these male protagonists, often flawed in many ways including their perception of, and interactions with, women is a key and conscious part of his writing; as the stories progress, we join these men on this internal journey as they become more aware of their flaws.
I haven’t read any Murakami in awhile now but, while my favourite Murakami stories still probably remain the ones with the more surreal/magic realist elements to them, this little book reminded me of almost everything I love about his writing. It contains all the elements that are staples in his writing; from the ritualistic beer (or in this case cocktail) sipping, jazz and Western pop and rock music references, to cats and his fascination with women’s earlobes, woven with certain elements of Japanese culture and tradition and the philosophical journeys that his protagonists inevitably seem to undertake, all delivered in prose that draws us into the world he has created.
South of the Border, West of the Sun was first published in Japanese in 1992. It was published in English by Vintage in 2003, translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel.
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949. He grew up in Kobe and then moved to Tokyo, where he attended Waseda University. After college, Murakami opened a small jazz bar, which he and his wife ran for seven years.
His first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, won the Gunzou Literature Prize for budding writers in 1979. He followed this success with two sequels, Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase, which all together form “The Trilogy of the Rat.”
Murakami is also the author of the novels Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Norwegian Wood; Dance Dance Dance; South of the Border, West of the Sun; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Sputnik Sweetheart; Kafka on the Shore; After Dark; 1Q84; and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. He has written three short story collections: The Elephant Vanishes; After the Quake; and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman; and an illustrated novella, The Strange Library.