South of the Border, West of the Sun is a short novel by Haruki Murakami.
Growing up in the suburbs of post-war Japan, it seemed to Hajime that everyone but him had brothers and sisters. His sole companion was 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 Hajime is in his thirties. After a decade of drifting he has found happiness with his loving wife and two daughters, and success running a jazz bar. Then Shimamoto reappears. She is beautiful, intense, enveloped in mystery. Hajime is catapulted into the past, putting at risk all he has in the present.
This book put me under a spell. I read it in a day, with the constant sound of the engine speeding me through the pages as a car drove me to a far off location. Haruki Murakami is known for the dream-like quality in his works, much like the endless stretch of the road that expanded in front of me, something I failed to see in the surrealist narrative of Kafka on the Shore and instead saw in this much more realistic novel.
Honestly, reading this book was such a smooth experience. The language was simple, the story was too, and the characters were so real. I didn’t even notice that I liked them, since they were so natural, like everyday people I would see on the street and how the things that would be revealed about them came in such a seamless way.
First of all, Hajime is a only child, a trait I share. I think this trait defines him well, as he dwells on how people may think he is entitled and he does end up being selfish throughout his life by cheating on women he is in relationships with. He first does this with a lover he had in high school, Izumi with her own cousin, then circles back around to cheating with Yukiko (his wife) with his childhood best friend. He laments that this inner selfishness can’t be changed.
I know. How the hell do I like a dolt who cheats on women?
Well, in my defense, the book spends numerous chapters building up on the nuances of this character, of how, with his restaurant business he has the ability of the seeking out the most passionate people in their jobs. Or how he still keeps on swimming laps after high school every morning because he is dedicated to his health. Or how he cares for his family over business, only keeping two bars as to not forget about them. So, I don’t only like a dolt who cheats on women; I like Hajime.
Shimamoto’s character development is opposite to Hajime’s and instead of building up her life story too, the author shrouds her life with smoke, so the only glimmer we can see is the lit end of her cigarette. We barely know anything about her- only how she displays herself in conversation. She keeps herself secret.
And intends to set that secret aflame.
So, Hajime seeks to illuminate the rest of her, to find the light at the end of the tunnel, to dive back into the past when they both shared their childhood, South of the Border and West of the Sun. The metaphors of the title are perfect; haunting even, South of the Border being from a song by Nat King Cole they both listened to when they were younger and the West of the Sun referring to a disease that Siberian farmers get with the repetitive seasons- when they get tired of life. It is the equation of Hajime’s mid-life crisis, in how he tries to run back to the times before and makes ripples through the life he has now.
The other characters serve as examples to Hajime, as signs of where he can stay or go. Yukiko is practical- someone who is a signal of stability and of the present day. Izumi is a broken girl who cannot move on from her heartbreak, who warns Hajime just by her wretched appearance in a taxi not to pursue Shimamoto once she’s gone.
I don’t like how Izumi’s cousin was written though; she seemed to be there just to push the plot forward. She is just a woman who has a lot of sex with Hajime during his years at college and is a minor character.
One gripe I do have with Haruki Murakami’s writing in general is that he does this weird thing where like in maybe two pages into a female character getting introduced he writes about their breasts. It makes me question his respect for women and his reasons for characterizing women this way. Why would he write them around the male character like that?
Despite his reasons, I received the women as being important people influencing Hajime, independent in their own lives, lost in their own circles of the past and future. It is just Hajime’s fatal flaw- his selfishness- that ropes them all together and his need for the past that makes him remember them again.
“The sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”
Even if that message isn’t very uplifting, Hajime still has hope for the future of himself and his daughters, visualizing rain on the deep blue sea at the end. This book is whirlpool of different realities throughout time and how they culminate in one’s mind, how when they become overwhelming it is best to focus on the present time and day, and just keep swimming.