South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
Hajime, currently a thirty-seven-year-old man, has an ideal life. Blessed with a beautiful wife, two young daughters, and no financial concerns, he is happier than most.
However, something is missing; something in Hajime is empty. The only caveat is… He doesn’t know what, why, or how to fill the void inside of him. Through Murakami’s achingly beautiful and alarmingly haunting writing, Hajime takes us back through the most meaningful relationships in his life in the hopes of discovering what he has lost in the process.
“In the world I lived in, it was an accepted idea that only children were spoiled by their parents, weak, and self-centered. This was a given-like the fact that the barometer goes down the higher up you go and the fact that cows give milk. That’s why I hated it whenever someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had. Just let them hear I didn’t have any and instinctively they thought: An only child, eh? Spoiled, weak, and self-centered, I betcha. That kind of knee-jerk reaction depressed me, and hurt. But what really depressed and hurt me was something else; the fact that everything they thought about me was true. I really was spoiled, weak, and self-centered,” (page 5).
“Second, no one around me-with the exception of Shimamoto, of course- ever listened to Liszt’s piano concertos. The very idea excited me. I’d found a world that no one around me knew-a secret garden only I was allowed to enter. I felt elevated, lifted to another plane of existence,” (page 11).
“‘There are some things in this world that can be done over, and some that can’t. And time passing is one thing that can’t be redone. Come this far, and you can’t go back. Don’t you think so?'” (Shimamoto; page 14).
“‘Now you’re able to think of a few things other than what’s under a girl’s skirt, right?’
‘A few,’ I said. ‘But if that’s got you worried, maybe next time you’d better wear pants!'” (page 146).
“‘You’re here,’ I continued. ‘At least you look as if you’re here. But maybe you aren’t. Maybe it’s just your shadow. The real you may be someplace else. Or maybe you already disappeared, a long, long time ago. I reach out my hand to see, but you’ve hidden yourself behind a cloud of probablys. Do you think we can go on like this forever?'” (page 170).
“‘ I told you I love you. What’s wrong with thinking about the body of the man you love? Haven’t you thought about my body?'” (page 182).
“Probably is a word you may find south of the border. But never, west of the sun,” (page 196).
Funny enough, after telling my dad about the magical world of, After Dark, he purchased Haruki Murakami’s, South of the Border, West of the Sun, for me as a Christmas gift. And wow, I am so glad he chose this book in particular! If I had been choosing for myself, I may have chosen, Kafka on the Shore, or even, A Wild Sheep Chase. However, after the first few pages (I say this a lot, don’t I?) I was hooked. Reading this book feels like looking through stained glass. The writing is irresistibly impeccable, re calling the most minute details from the sounds in a crowded bar to a small fold in a woman’s skirt.
The plot of the book is fairly simple. With no science fiction or magical realism at hand, South of the Border, West of the Sun, presents itself as mundane. In fact, most of the book is about facing the mundane and mechanical realities of everyday life. Hajime is an only-child, (something that seems to plague him deeply) and spends most of the book ruminating about his life and closest relationships.
Hajime begins (which is ironic because Hajime also means, “beginning,” in Japanese) the story by describing his relationship with his childhood neighbor and close friend, Shimamoto. Shimamoto is introspective, shy, and also an only-child. Although she never mentions it herself, she is quite self-conscious due to a permanent limp she has in her left leg from polio. At the tender age of twelve, the two form what seems to be the very beginnings of a lifelong love story. However, everything goes awry when Hajime’s family moves.After being separated from his closest friend, Hajime is forced to begin his life anew. But despite the distance, for years after, Hajime constantly recalls on Shimamoto with fondness.
During his high school years, Hajime falls in love with the lovely Izumi. Timid yet curious, Izumi etches a fixed place in Hajime’s mind. Although he spends most of his time lusting after her, Hajime proves time and time again that he deeply cares about Izumi. However, like most things in Hajime’s life, everything about the relationship appears perfect, except there is a piece missing from each encounter they have.
This pattern continues on until Hajime is in his thirties and he happens to meet his wife, Yukiko. Then comes the house, the dream job, his two daughters, the happy life. But the images of what could have been… and what still could be, disrupt everything.
This novel features topic matter which should be mildly depressing to a sensitive reader such as myself. I tend to shy away from sad books due to the fact that when I read, I simply don’t want to be depressed. Sure, I love to think, but I don’t believe all intellectual musings need to be depressing. (This is why I disliked most of the readings I was assigned in high school. Can we please have some comedies once in awhile?) However, something about Murakami’s writing in, South of the Border, West of the Sun, comes off as distant. When Hajime describes events in his life, he seems to hold his feelings at arm’s length. I am not sure if this was intentional, but somehow, any emotion in the book is dulled down to the point where you may feel something, but it may not be as painful as you imagined it would be. And this is neither to criticize the book, nor Murakami’s writing; in fact, it is quite the opposite.
While reading, I felt as if I was in a trance. Time was passing by, yet reading about Hajime’s life is the equivalent of looking at colorful blur of light from a fast-moving car. This makes sense because a major theme in the book is the flow of time. The idea that you can only move forward, is prevalent throughout the entire book and expressed by each character. This theme definitely reminded of, The Great Gatsby, (one high school read I did enjoy) due to certain characters’ obsessions with nostalgia and reliving forgotten moments.
Overall, I truly enjoyed reading this book. I adore Murakami’s writing because it can make any situation feel extraordinary and magical. To me, Murakami’s writing is the equivalent of the Midas Touch; anything he writes turns to gold. The characters, the imagery, the themes, etc. However, another special feature of his writing is that is makes me think more deeply about the world around me. Not in a depressing way, but in a hopeful way. His style is calmly and patiently observant. Murakami writes as if he has seen the world, lived it, observed it, and discovered its secrets. The only thing left to do is for him to leave the clues for everyone else to discover its meanings on his or her own.