South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami

review by Gabriel

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

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.


7 Responses to South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami

  1. Baldercrap. Why should you adopt an artificial moral landscape in order to appreciate a text? I can think of a few examples where I’ve been discussing controversial texts where a person said ‘Oh, hey. We shouldn’t judge their morality. Different culture, yo.’ regarding a text which was supposed to challenge our moral intuitions.

    • Nothing to do with the fact the book is from a different culture. I don’t know where you got that impression from. I just find it’s better to look at how a character is portrayed than immediately imposing your own moral judgements. For example, if you were reading Romeo and Juliet and thinking, “Well, these kids are a bit too young for all this hanky panky,” it would probably stop you from appreciating the love story.

  2. winterschlaf says:

    I really liked the book, i think it has nothing to do with different culture etc, actually its exactly the opposite, while reading it you feel you could be in every city in the world, it could be Berlin or New York, you really cant tell. I am not sure but i think there were more than 5 years between the 2 books (norwegian wood and south of the border) so i am not that sure that some ideas that he had during writing norwegian wood finally got worked out in south of the border, i would say its just that the writer is the same person, that means some ideas and issues he deals with have to do with his character, and in his books you can see how the way he sees things changes through the years but he is still the same person, with the same unanswered questions. But thats only my opinion :). Anyway, really nice blog!

    • Thanks wintershlaf. I agree with your points, even though they contradict some of what I said to a degree. Can I do that? Oh well. I agree that, while Murakami comments on and is naturally affected by the culture in which he lives, his novels could be set in any modern country, which makes them wonderfully accessible. And yes, I think it’s natural for a writer to have issues that they return to in multiple novels. But five years isn’t long between novels, and I wonder if some of Murakami’s fans would have felt like he had run out of ideas at the time. Then again, I like the idea of revisiting the same ideas from different angles. Thanks for your opinion, you’re welcome anytime.

  3. […] brightly coloured cover invited me to pick her up. A Haruki Murakami book, entitled “South Of the Border, West of the Sun“. This would be my second Murakami book. Funny of all his titles, I actually started out […]

  4. Christian says:

    “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.” A fundamentally Western simplistic interpretation of a complex and nuanced situation.

    In the West, we focus on the individual, in the East, they focus on the context. Hence, you attribute his behavior to his personality, whereas an Eastern would look at the context, history and other forces at play.

    I believe the book was about his agonisation over his desires that hurt those around him.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Christian, and for your opinion, but I have to disagree with you for a few reasons. First, I don’t think people or art from the East focus on the context more than Westerners. I say this as someone who has read a few Japanese books and seen a few movies, and as someone who was raised in the West but is from an “Eastern” background, and is married to someone from the East. As a generalisation, I’d agree that the West is more individualistic, but think that Asians are more communal minded as opposed to placing greater emphasis on the context.

      Also, the sentence you quote isn’t so much an interpretation as my personal feelings on the character, so I’m happy to agree to disagree.

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