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

Posted on | March 10, 2011 | 9 Comments

South Of The BorderThis is the fifth book by Murakami that I have read, and excluding What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I have to say it’s the most subtle. The magical realism and bizarreness that I expect from Murakami’s writing is missing, which is almost disappointing. However, this book is strangely reminiscent of Norwegian Wood, in that the title is inspired by a song (Nat King Cole’s South of the Border), and that the middle-aged protagonist still thinks of his first love.

Hajime, thirty-seven years old when this novel starts, is the narrator. An only child in the 1950s, when most families had at least two children, Hajime is often considered to be the stereotypical only child: spoilt and selfish. While for the most part, he does come across as a decent introspective narrator, some of his actions and thoughts lead us to believe he does actually fit the “only child” bill.

Hajime and Shimamoto, a twelve year old girl left lame by Polio, meet when the two are twelve years old, and instantly strike up a friendship. Shimamoto is an only child as well, and the two children feel perfectly at ease with one another, until the inevitable happens: Hajime moves to another town at the end of the school year, and the two lose touch.

Hajime has his first girlfriend, and the first girl he sleeps with is her cousin, hurting his girlfriend at the time beyond repair. He attempts justifying it, saying

From the first time I saw this girl, I knew I wanted to sleep with her. More accurately, I knew I had to sleep with her. And instinctively, I knew she felt the same way. When I was with, my body, as the phrase goes, shook all over. […] The magnetism was that strong. I couldn’t let this girl walk away. If I did, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

He still stumbles through life, till he reaches this point: happily married to a placid loving woman, Yukiko, with kids, running two successful jazz bars. He is content, for the most part, but something is missing. Cue, Shimamoto enters his bar one day, and the two childhood friends are reunited, much to their joy. The attraction is mutual, and he is ready to give up his content happy life to spend time with her. However, her life remains a dark mystery throughout the book – she doesn’t talk about her past, or the troubles she’s undergone. She comes and goes, sometimes disappears for months unending, with no explanations, but that’s enough to make Hajime’s life tumultuous as he obsesses over her, how he can’t live without her and how he’s ready to sacrifice everything for her.

The title itself is indicative of that, with the “West Of The Sun” referring to a madness that affects Siberian farmers which causes them to forget about the bare necessities of life, but just keep walking towards the land west of the sun, till they drop dead out of fatigue, hunger and thirst. It’s this self-destructive streak that made him endearing, and almost stopped me from judging him for his actions, and his susceptibility to infidelity. Also, it did make me ask the question: is this selfishness and obstinacy a result of him being an only child – a point Murakami’s emphasises abundantly in this book? He does ponder the repercussions of his actions, but at the end of the day, he’s predominantly thinking of himself.

Infidelity is never forgivable as per my moral compass. And then, we see the lives of women destroyed – of happy women transforming into unemotional stones, of women full of life feeling compelled to kill themselves, of married women willing to accept infidelity – and that makes me wonder, why on earth is it that women are normally shown to be that weak and fragile, so much so that men can break them so easily?

The one thing that did really annoy me about this book was that as a reader, I have no idea as to what Shimamoto’s story is! What is she hiding and why is she being so secretive? So coy? So precocious?

I enjoyed the flow of this book, specially in the second half, where Murakami describes the imagery and the emotions oh-so-poetically.

Every once in a while, as if remembering its duty, the sun showed its face through a break in the clouds. All we could hear were the screeches of the crows and the rush of water. Someday, somewhere, I will see this scene, I felt. The opposite of deja vu – not the feeling that I had already seen what was around me, but the premonition that I would some day. This premonition reached out its long hand and grabbed my mind tight. I could see myself in its grip. There at its fingertips was me. Me in the future, grown old. Of course, I couldn’t see what I looked like.

but I did crave some of the kooky outlandish writing that I’ve come to know and love Murakami for.

Guess The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is the next Murakami on my list. Will it be bizarre enough?


9 Responses to “Haruki Murakami – South of the Border, West of the Sun”

  1. Coffee and a Book Chick
    March 10th, 2011 @ 2:42 am

    I’m a bit behind on all things Murakami. I need to pick up one of his books immediately! :)

  2. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    March 10th, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    I haven’t read this one, but have to agree that I love Murakami for his weirdness. Norwegian Wood was just a bit too normal.

    Wind up Bird starts off normal, but gets weirder towards the end. Weirdly I actually prefered the first half, but I look forward to your thoughts on it.

  3. claire
    March 12th, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    I’m contemplating on reading Norwegian Wood soon, from the tbr. Everytime I hear about Murakami, the pull just gets stronger. I’ve also found Suite Francaise at the thrift shop last week. Hope you are enjoying it. Would love to hear what you think.

  4. Sarah
    March 13th, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    I haven’t read a kooky Murakami yet: only Norwegian Wood, so I was a little disappointed when you observed that this one is subtle. Nonetheless you won me over with your intriguing review.

    But I shan’t have to make a difficult decision over my next Murakami because I already have a copy of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. I’m with you on looking forward to something outlandish, but also concerned because there are those who have found it unreadable. Won’t be surprised if you get to it first!

  5. Pam
    March 13th, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    I love love LOVE Murakami. So glad to see you’re back and posting again, inspires me to get back to my pile of books…

  6. Bina
    March 16th, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

    This is the only Murakami I’ve read and though I acrually enjoyed it I haven’t tried his other works yet. No idea why! :D

  7. Nicola
    March 19th, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Where would you recommend starting with Murakami? I saw him interviewed on a book show on TV the other night and I liked the way he spoke.

  8. anothercookiecrumbles
    March 27th, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

    @Coffee and a Book Chick: Yeah, definitely!!!

    @Jackie: I can’t wait to read it. In fact, I’m sooo tempted to read a few Murakamis back to back. His writing is fast-paced and kind-of easy, so… Wind Up Chronicle is definitely going to come up soon!

    @claire: I hope you enjoy Norwegian Wood – it was my introduction to Murakami and I was hooked enough to say I’d like to read all his books. As for Suite Francaise – it’s back on the shelf, as I’m reading slightly more fast-paced books at the moment!!! I’ll go back to it soon.

    @Sarah: Oh no! I hope you don’t find it unreadable. That would almost be tragic (sorry, prone to hyperbolism, but I did “almost”). I guess it’s not that “normal” is bad, but, Kafka on the Shore was so outlandish that I just wanted to read another one of his books which were bizarre-o-city.

    @Pam: Haha, finish Rebecca ;)

    @Bina: Haha, I hope you do soon, as I love reading reviews of his work. Oh, selfish me…

    @Nicola: I started with Norwegian Wood, which I absolutely loved (although the movie was a little too graphic for me). I did read his autobiography (which is incredibly interesting, specially if you’re a marathon runner) called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” which I thought was a great insight into him. And finally, my favourite so far is Kafka On The Shore just because it’s so wonderfully strange and unexpected – highly recommend it.

  9. Pam
    March 28th, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    …you know me so well…!

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