South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel)

imgres-2It’s always a pleasure to pick up a Murakami.  How can you not want to read on after this understated opening:

My birthday is January 4th 1951.  The first week of the first month of the second half of the twentieth century.  Something to commemorate, I suppose, which is why my parents named me Hajime – “Beginning” in Japanese…

This is the thing with Murakami, his writing is understated and yet you get so much out of it; it’s incredibly rewarding to read.  With South of the Border, West of the Sun Murakami has managed, as he often does, to achieve depth with such brevity.  

As a youngster Hajime meets the love of his life, an only child like himself, Shimamoto understands him like no-one else, even without long conversation they seem bound by something more than mutual understanding and emotion.  Alas, his family moves house, they go to different schools and drift apart.  Hajmie meanders through adolescence and his 20s, always looking for more meaning, but not putting in any effort to find it.  His thoughts are constantly on Shimamoto and he’s always restless.  Then he meets his wife, Yukiko, and his life turns a corner.  He opens two jazz bars and becomes a successful businessman.  Just as he’s settling down in his late 30’s, Shimamoto comes back into his life when she turns up at his bar one night.  Despite that this is what he has always wanted, her return confuses him.

A little aside here; I do wonder how much of himself Murakami wrote into this book.  Born in the post-war baby boom, jazz bar owner, obsessive swimmer (Murakami is a ritualistic runner).  Just a thought..back to the review.

This book touches on several themes including the reliability of memory, loneliness and alienation in a big world but mostly its about consequences and dealing with your decisions and actions.  Shimamoto’s mantra (repeated at least 3 times in the 187 pages) is:

…there are things in this world that can be changed and some that can’t.  And time passing is one thing that can’t be redone.

There are a couple of occasions when Hajime questions why he does certain things and they are really poignant moments – to the point where I wanted him to learn his lesson.

 …that I could hurt somebody so badly she could never recover.  That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

Maybe I’ve just lost the chance to ever be a decent human being.  The mistakes I’d committed – maybe they were part of my very make-up an inescapable part of my being.

Knowing Hajime’s past actions and his feelings for Shimamoto, the story builds to a predictable point with a classic Murakami (and maybe Japanese, I’m not well read enough to be certain) magical, other-worldly scene after which Hajime’s life as he knew it, falls apart.  There is no escaping his actions now, there is no escaping himself.  But he gets a chance at living up to his name and beginning again.  He decides he will finally take responsibility for the ones who care about him most rather than being so selfish, but will he really? Probably not.

And here’s the thing with this book, I loved it, but I really disliked Hajime.  He is egotistical, self-centred, disrespectful to all his female companions other than Shamimoto and wallows far too much in his own self-pity.  I had no patience for his behaviour.  But then it wouldn’t have been the same book had he been an all-round nice guy, reliable husband and father, nice to old ladies and kittens.  So despite not liking the main character, I have to admit that Murakami has done it again and sucked me in with his poetic prose, might need to raid my shelf for more!

I read this for January in Japan

January in Japan

5 thoughts on “South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel)”

  1. Unlike Dance, Dance, Dance or The Wind Up, this story is more down to earth. Nobody is perfect. Even if you live a happy married life. Unconditionally love doesn’t exist, even when you know who you’re true love is. Questions always remain and people have to accept this fact. Again Murakami succeeds in letting the readers to think and reconsider again what “life”, “love” or “marriage” mean. The answers on these questions remain vague. But isn’t that what is all about?

  2. Yes I enjoyed this one even if the protagonist was the most pleasant, but most of Murakami’s characters are that great & yet…

  3. I had the same thoughts about this one. It’s a good book (and many people love it), but Hajime was just too unlikeable for me to really enjoy it. Of course, there is a school of thought that says his relationship with the older Shimamoto is all in his head…

    And, yes – there is a *lot* of Murakami himself in this book 😉

    1. Thanks Tony. I wondered myself whether the whole thing with Shimamoto after she turns up again was really in his head – it is a possibility, especially as she turns up at similar times, the fact that you never get a back story, the money issue, and how she eventually leaves. I did enjoy it a lot, just didn’t like him…

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