Peter John McLean

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami (Reviews)

A few days ago I picked up South of the Border, West of the Sun. It was one of the only Murakami novels that I hadn’t read yet and I felt it was time to crack it open. I sat down at around seven at night to read it and six hours later collapsed into bed, having stayed up hours later than I planned to read the entire book in a sitting.

It’s a short book, only about two hundred and ten pages, so it is truly readable in a sitting (even easier for people who aren’t very slow readers like I am). It also is the kind of book that offers great value to anyone willing to sit down and read it front to back. It’s just that kind of book; it has a tighter story line than most Murakami books and really centers on a boy and a girl who lose each other during adolescence and find each other again, years later, as adults.

This isn’t the first time Murakami has written this concept. His short story, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning is essentially the same concept. So is 1Q84. It’s clearly an idea that Murakami enjoys playing with, especially as he seems so talented at applying his already dreamlike writing to distant lovers.

However, South of the Border, West of the Sun differs significantly from the two other times he’s written like this; this time the story is about the conflict that the protagonist, Hajime, faces dealing with his love for Shimamoto (his childhood best friend and a girl he still loves deeply) while being married with two young daughters.

He has built a successful life with two jazz bars, a family, a condo, and a couple of European cars to drive around. He has all the things a person needs to feel complete…in theory.

The book is about Hajime’s relationship with Shimamoto, how she spontaneously shows up at his bars on rainy nights to smoke cigarettes, drink cocktails, and talk to him. She won’t tell him anything about her life, whether she is married, where her money comes from, or anything else. Hajime, resigned to this, simply talks to her, shares from his own life, and even lies to his wife to go visit a river with Shimamoto.

In typical Murakami fashion there is an almost surgically selected collection of music that defines moods, phases, and the temperament of the characters. This includes the vinyl records Shimamoto and Hajime play when they are kids in her house to the music that the jazz piano trio play while Hajime is at the bar.

Music has always been an integral part of Murakami’s novels and “South of the Border” (a song by Nat King Cole) makes this book yet another Murakami titled after music (like Norwegian Wood and Dance Dance Dance).

I love this book. It’s easily one of my favorite Murakami novels (though I say that a lot) and it is quieter and more concise than most of his works. Unlike books like Dance Dance Dance, Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, 1Q84, and many others, this book is very to the point. Every conversation, every scene, every sentence feels completely necessary. The usually wandering style of Murakami—which many of us fanboys and fangirls love—is actually not present this time. Instead the book tracks Hajime’s life and every event in it seems to be necessary to appreciating his burdens.

There is a subplot about Yukiko, a girl who Hajime dated when he was in high school, and how he destroyed her by sleeping with her cousin. This simple story about Yukiko and Hajime defines the essence of the whole book, as it shows how Hajime, simply by following his emotional and sexual desires, is capable of destroying other people. He mentions it openly, stating,

I should have learned many things from that experience, but when I look back on it, all I gained was one single, undeniable fact. That ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal

Even earlier, still regarding Yukiko, he warms the reader up to this crucial theme,

But I didn’t understand then. That I could hurt someone so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

There are many other recurring themes within the work, including the routine use of the phrase “castles in the air” as a way of exploring how his life is filled with things he decides he want, which then manifest. This is firmly planted in the reality of his life i.e. designing his bar, but obviously reminds the reader of how he’s chasing his love for Shimamoto even though he’s married.

Even when Shimamoto ghosts him for a number of weeks he copes by focusing on his other “castle in the air”, the bar, saying,

Even castles in the sky can do with a fresh coat of paint.

The relatively obvious implication here is that, while he’s remodeling his bar, he’s really reevaluating his entire life and all of the choices he’s made.

There are more examples of imagery in his writing used to explore the concepts that pervade the text. He talks about how there are many things in life that cannot be undone or redone and therefore all other aspects of life follow as a result of them.

The permanence of one’s actions deepens the consequences of Hajime and Shimamoto’s relationship, as everything Hajime does with her is at the expense of a family and a life he has already created.

The book is great and I highly recommend it to Murakami fans and also probably to people who have never read a Murakami book before. And for readers new to Murakami, I think it’s a reasonable starting place, though some of the quieter themes may go unnoticed to someone who isn’t familiar with how Murakami uses dreams, dialogue, and other mechanisms to deepen his writing.