review by Gabriel
South of the Border, West of the Sun has the same basic plot as another of Murakami’s novels, Norwegian Wood – a protagonist whose life is in turmoil because he is unable to forget his first love. Published only five years apart, the former is a revisitation of many of the latter’s themes – death, love, sex, fate. But there are a number of significant differences that make for a very different, though equally enjoyable, reading experience.
The most significant difference is the age of the protagonist. South of the Border, West of the Sun’s narrator, Hajime, is middle aged when much of the novel takes place. First, though, he relates his life, beginning with his defining childhood friendship with Shimamoto, a lame girl with whom he forms a deep bond due to their shared experience of being only children. Around the age of twelve, before they can physically explore their feelings for each other, he moves away and they lose touch. This relationship continues to define his life as he drifts aimlessly, letting his actions be dictated by fate, which seems intent on keeping him apart from Shimamoto until the time is right. He is detached to the point of callousness, wounding a high school girlfriend and having a number of flings until he is suddenly married with children. All of which is prelude to Shimamoto re-entering his life, as beautiful and magnetic as he remembers. The attraction between them is undeniable, and Hajime risks losing everything to explore this singular connection.
Hajime is born on the first of January, 1951 – the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century. This is a sign post that he represents the zeitgeist of Japan for this era. He is briefly involved in the student political movement during university, becomes a salary man in a job he hates, then, during the height of the bubble economy, he comes to own a number of bars, not to mention a swanky apartment in Aoyama and a BMW – pretty easy to interpret as emblematic of Japan’s economic and political progress. His obsession with his childhood friend could even be read as Japan’s nostalgia for simpler times. But he also points out how atypical he is – he is an only child in the 1950s, he is never really committed to politics, and he rejects ill gotten money or exorbitant wealth. Like any metaphor, it is complicated by the practical demands of plot and characterisation.
I try not to moralise when reading. I find imposing your own values on a novel prevents you from appreciating and understanding it. But authors intend to engage readers on all levels, and I couldn’t help feeling that the protagonist was portrayed as callous. His age, not to mention the fact he has children, make his infidelity hard to excuse, and all of his philosophising about fate just struck me as an excuse for his philandering. There is also a critical scene between Hajime and his wife, where his self-absorption is highlighted by his failure to inquire about her thoughts, contrasted sharply with her patience and understanding. The reason I hesitate to make a definitive judgement is because Murakami’s narrators are all cut from the same cloth, and despite being flawed and limited, they are generally decent individuals. If Hajime is supposed to be despicable, his narration has a level of irony I did not expect from Murakami. Read this way, another major theme is the essential conceitedness of men.
However, Hajime’s yearning for the mysterious and untouchable aspects is relatable, and therefore sympathetic. The novel’s title expresses this yearning. South of the Border refers to a famous song, and the lyric represents a longing for exoticism and escape. West of the Sun, as Shimamoto explains, describes a madness that effects Siberian farmers, causing them to walk towards the land west of the setting sun, forgetting sleep, food and water, until they die. These two notions perfectly express Hajime’s destructive desires.
This is probably one of Murakami’s more subtle novels. The longing and ennui of the characters is more evident in the absence of the bells and whistles of his signature magic realism. Due to the concision of the novel (around 200 pages), there is more about the characters and themes that is allowed to be implicit, creating a deeper impression compared with, say, the chunkier Norwegian Wood (almost 400 pages).
I imagine that while writing Norwegian Wood, ideas occurred to Murakami that could not be included in that novel, but which he was nonetheless compelled to write. While some critics have issues with authors revisiting the same themes and scenarious, I tend to think that many writer’s vitality comes from exploring their preoccupations. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a finely crafted, compelling novel in its own right, that caused me to consider this great writer in new ways.