South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami [A Review]

Fans of Murakami will find much to enjoy in South of the Border, West of the Sun, often described as a ‘Japanese Casablanca’. His recurrent themes of nostalgia and melancholy, of feeling isolated and lost, of young love and adult complications that have made Murakami universally popular; and the deceptively simple style that makes him so easy to enjoy are again on display here.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Though he can barely be called middle-aged, Hajime has just survived a crisis in his life and has paused to look back and reflect on the events that led him here.

An only child, he recalls a childhood where he felt profoundly different to other children and had only one friend; a girl called Shimamoto. Also an only child, Shimamoto shares his sense of separation, perhaps even more profoundly since, as a result of polio, she walks dragging her leg and cannot participate in many things children do. Hajime remembers his time spent with Shimamoto, listening to their parent’s records, as the happiest in his life. But on the cusp of puberty, when otherwise their friendship may have become something more, Hajime changes schools and he inevitably loses contact with Shimamoto.

As a teenager, Hajime remains a loner but no longer feels so unlike others. He has a girlfriend, Izumi, with whom he yearns for a physical relationship, though probably only for his own selfish needs. But Izumi is an anxious girl who worries about their future relationship since Hajime is intent on escaping their sleepy suburb for a big city university. So Izumi resists Hajime’s advances only to lose him to her cousin with whom Hajime has a passionate affair. The betrayal destroys Izumi and many years later Hajime is still haunted and disturbed by his capacity for self-centeredness and cruelty.

Hajime regards his 20’s as a wasted decade. After graduating from University he works a meaningless, boring job and the years go by in a flash. However, one mysterious event from these years has never left him.

One day he is walking through the busy city streets when he thinks he spots Shimamoto. The woman is beautiful, well-dressed and has Shimamoto’s distinctive walk. He follows her for a while, unsure how to approach her, unsure why he is hesitating. The woman ducks into a café and Hajime hovers around before following her in. Inside she makes a call from a pay phone, orders a drink and sits down not touching her drink. Then, abruptly, she leaves. Hajime gets up to resume following her when he is strong-armed aside by a large man, who hands him an envelope with a wad of cash in it and tells him to let it go.

He’s never been able to explain this event and the envelope with its cash still sits in his office drawer.

A few years later he meets Yukiko and in three months they are engaged. Her father runs a successful construction company and offers Hajime a lease to end his unfulfilling career and pursue his dream of running a jazz bar (not unlike Murakami himself, who ran a Jazz bar with his wife in Tokyo in the 70’s). Today, Hajime owns two bars and has two daughters. He is happy with his life, if by that he means he is in a comfortable and stable routine; but without passion, excitement or any sense of profound connection or meaning.

It is at this point in his life that Shimamoto saunters into the bar he named Robin’s Nest one rainy night. She’s beautiful and full of mystery and his crisis can unfold.

Haruki Murakami is one of the world’s most popular literary authors and those who are familiar and enjoy his work will find the elements they love in South of the Border, West of the Sun which, first published in Japanese in 1992, probably represents an early-career novel. Its brevity and relative lack of depth may mean it won’t rank among the best or most popular Murakami, but it deserves consideration on its own merits.

The story of young love; the lasting effects of betrayal, the mystery and uncertainty in the mind of the reader, in a concise work; reminded me of Julian Barnes Booker-Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending. But with the story of a man who runs a successful bar, whose world is turned upside down by the return of a mysterious beauty from his past and who considers risking everything to be with her; the obvious comparison would be to Casablanca. Many reviewers have even called this story a ‘Japanese Casablanca’, although, as with many Murakami stories, while it may be set in Japan with Japanese characters, the cultural elements are understated and his stories remain notable for their universality in setting, theme and character.

His style has been described as nostalgic or ‘sophmoric’ and this, albeit short, novel is in keeping with this pattern. Other components of his method will also be unmistakable to fans. A main character who is somewhat solitary, unfulfilled and uncertain as to how to amend that; who seems to do rather well despite the aimlessness of his life; the lack of purpose supporting both the melancholy and fatalistic aspects. Lovers who find connection in a mutual enjoyment of reading and music. The use of music is particularly noticeable; there is hardly a time where two characters meet without Hajime telling us what song was playing in the background to set the mood. The meaning behind the songs also inform the novels messages and themes.

The ‘South of the Border’ of the title refers to the popular 1939 song recorded for a film of the same name. As children Hajime and Shimamoto used to listen to a Nat King Cole recording of it (although in reality, Cole never recorded the song). Not knowing it refers to a trip to Mexico, Shimamoto used to wonder about what magical place lay south of the border. “Something beautiful, big and soft”. The ‘West of the Sun’ refers to a form of hysteria Shimamoto says afflicts people living in Siberia, possibly similar to Piblokto, where for no reason they abandon their life in difficult conditions and wander westward, usually dying of exposure.

Similarly, the return of Shimamoto and the possibility of achieving a fulfilling happiness is tempting Hajime to abandon his life, but perhaps he has not yet appreciated that what he may find is not a beautiful land south of the border, but his fate west of the sun.

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