Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun

The Cover of Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun

Major spoiler alert for Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun. Seriously. If you want to read his book, don’t even go to the next paragraph.

So I just finished Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun (SBWS from here on out). I’ve been a big fan of his for years, but after a glut of reading him I’ve taken some time off; there are only so many mysterious, disappearing women with uncannily beautiful ears that a man can take at a time. But now seemed like a good choice to pick it up again; it’s been raining lightly over the past few days, as it does in so many of the keys scenes in HM’s books, but while he often eddies in an autumnal sense of loss, now it’s spring and everything’s bright and verdant. I can get through the book without getting bummed out by his lost loves and lingering sense that human beings can never really make contact in the way they need to.

First, some tidbits about the book. It’s a much shorter read than much of his other work; it’s only about 210 pages and you can finish it in a day or two. More than that, it is much more pared down than even his other fiction, though its simplicity is an asset. Elsewhere HM has a tendency to indulge in contraption plotting, as in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World; at times this tendency is suggestive and speaks to HM’s interest in science fiction. At others it can also drag (I liked Wonderland the first time I read it, but haven’t been able to reread it–it’s just too much effort to get tho wheels turning again). As much as anything, SBWS‘s economical plotting reminded me of The Great Gatsby; it takes a mountain of talent and story telling experience to tell such a well plotted tale so succinctly. The book is streamlined and perfectly weighted to its story—that of a married but longing man approaching middle age. While HM’s plotting is excellent, he doesn’t reach Fitzgerald’s heights, partly because he lacks Fitzgerald’s inimicable ability to hone a sentence (of course this might come from the fact that I’m reading HM in translation, but I think the contrast stands). Moreover, HM’s style scores many of its points by playing off of a few of his favorite themes, namely the malleability of time, a sense of disconnect, and the gnawing feeling that there could always be something more that we are missing.1

And now for the real spoilers—the actual plot. The book is a first person account/memoir given by a successful bar owner2 named Hajime. He is a nice enough guy, and while his honesty about the hurt he inflicts on the various women in his life doesn’t quite make up for that hurt, it adds to his believability as a character. As a child Hajime loved a girl named Shimamoto in a stilted, pre-adolescent way. They held hands once, for about ten seconds,3 but when he moved a few stops away by train they may as well have moved worlds apart. They lost track of each other, and Hajime spent his twenties isolated and alone. In one of the book’s most familiarly Murakami’s sequences, a twentysomething Hajime follows a young woman who may be Shimamoto through Tokyo, though he fails to make contact with her.

Eventually Hajime meets a woman he could love with affectionation, but who cannot replace Shimamoto. She has a successful father who, after the young couple are married, helps Hajime start a few jazz clubs. Hajime and Yukiko have a few children, and all seems right in the world, or right enough, anyway. Hajime does an interview with a trade magazine specializing in bars, and soon people from his past stop by to talk—including Shimamoto, now a great beauty with apparent access to money (she doesn’t have to work) but is nonetheless stricken with a great sadness. The two resume their friendship when it is possible for Shimamoto to stop by the bar, though we never learn anything specific about her situation. There’s a mutual, simmering desire, as strong as Tony Leung and Maggie Chung’s in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Hajime and Yukiko’s marriage may be the healthiest male-female relationship in all of Murikamiana, but it doesn’t have the romance or the pull (for Hajime, at least), of his relationship with Shimamoto.

Eventually the two do fly Tokyo to spend the day together and to complete an errand for Shimamoto. This was the best part of the book; it could have been as contrived as any romantic comedy trying to keep its leads apart, but Murakami pulls it off with a special sort of delicacy, and the moment at which Hajime considers running away with Shimamoto is one of real tension, even if we suspect that he isn’t quite willing to leave his wife. Eventually Hajime and Shimamoto do sleep together, and this is where the novel went a bit off track for me. Rather than dealing with the ramifactions that this would cause between them, Shimamoto pulls the most classic move associated with female characters in Murakami’s books—she disappears without a word. Not a note, not anything. She’d have had trouble getting back to the city from the cottage where they spend the night, but somehow that didn’t stop her. Hajime waits for her to come back to his bar, but in his heart he knows that she’s gone for good.

The color only starts to come back to Hajime’s world when he catches sight of another ex-girlfriend, Izumi. They had dated in high school, she loved him and wanted him to stay in their town and was destroyed when she found out that he’d been having a passionate, purely sexual affair with her cousin. Somehow seeing Izumi’s drained, zombie-like face starts Hajime on the path back to his wife, and they have a sort of reconciliation.

I was enjoying the book thoroughly until it became clear that Hajime and Shimamoto were going to sleep together, and that there were a very limited number of pages left. I had a sinking feeling that Shimamoto would up and disappear rather than explaining herself or hanging around for the aftermath of her actions, which would undermine the stoic quality to her character that Hajime had been so careful to describe earlier in the book.

But perhaps that is just it. Perhaps Hajime is deluded through the entire novel, and perhaps Shimamoto isn’t as strong as he thinks she is. I had this thought and things started to fall into place. Throughout the book she is a character of convenience; she pushes the plot forward with her presence, we have intimations of her life outside of her relationship with Hajime, but, in classic Murakami fashion, she insists on keeping secret the specifics of her life. She explains nothing, and at the moment when she might reveal herself, she disappears. She’s not a character so much as a symbol of the past that Hajime would like to go back and live differently. I don’t usually mind when HM keeps some or all of his characters shrouded in mystery, but this time I thought she deserved a better end.

Shimamoto’s disappearance casts a pall over the whole book; Shimamoto is not as strong as Hajime, Izumi falls apart when Hajime cheats on her, and his wife has the best chance of survival only because she’s willing to overlook Hajime’s philandering. That is a reasonable interpertation, but it also means that no one in the book has life beyond Hajime’s impressions. There’s something off and solipsistic about this viewpoint; it makes the whole book an exercise in navel gazing, and I’d like to think that HM had more to offer.

1Of course these themes run through all of his novels, and I think most conversations I’ve had with hard core Murakami fans involve a relative rating of how well he manages to express the same themes in any particular work (come to think of it, no one ever seems to choose What I Think About When I Think About Running or Underground, HM’s two major forays into nonfiction, as their favorite; each of his other books has its champions).

2I always wonder how much Murakami’s interior life resembles that of his protagonists; he owned a successful jazz bar in Tokyo called Peter Cat.

3Sometimes I think every modern author should just start out their careers by signing a check over to Marcel Proust’s estate.

Just one more note: I love the cover of the novel, putting as it does the man and the woman’s faces in the form of a Venn diagram; they share a certain amount, but there is much more they don’t have in common. Moreover, they are headed in completely opposite directions, quite like ships passing in the night. just about my only problem with it is that the woman’s mouth is up-side down, which meant that I kept picking up the book on the wrong side. It was a quick read though, so that didn’t happen too often.

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2 Responses to Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun

  1. Greg says:

    Hey Mike,

    I’ve only just had a chance to peruse your blog as the earthquake and its aftermath got in the way and the past week and a half is the first real free time I’ve had. Re: SBWS, I enjoyed it; it’s not as dazzling as some of his more surrealistic efforts but it does drill down effectively into a central dilemma of modern life, namely that rather than making us feel happier, the choices we have can leave us feeling sad and unfulfilled. This is something I appreciate more and more the older I get – not that I’ve lived the most of my adult life yet, but the number of decisions I’ve made that left me with one form of regret or another has mounted over the past several years, and I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t be more content if some things hadn’t been decided for me. This is a paradox that this book effectively evokes without making explicit or turning into a surrealist sideshow. It’s kind of a grown-up’s Norwegian Wood, if you will, and a good companion piece to that book.

    I agree with your critique that Shimamoto is more compelling as a symbol than as a rounded human being, but that’s common in most of Murakami’s works, at least the ones narrated by male characters – the inability of men and women to really reach each other in romantic relationships is one of the central themes of his entire oeuvre. I think he has developed the ability to write better female characters over the years, which you can see in some of his more recent novels and his short story collections, but he likes telling the stories of emotionally isolated men, so in this case I think it might be a choice rather than a dodge. The point being made is that unlike Yukiko, who’s a real woman with real human depths, Shimamoto – or at least Hajime’s conception of her – is a phantom. Hajime can face middle age wondering if he didn’t miss out on the love of his life, but ultimately had he chosen differently and pursued Shimamoto the somewhat idealized notion of her he holds would have disappeared – as she does after they finally sleep together. He would be in a similar place, still wondering about the road not taken – it would just be a different road not taken.

    It’s kind of a quietly effective little piece of existentialist literature I think. It really gets at a deep philosophical truth without being grandiose about it in the manner of works that are usually labeled as such. I think it’s one of his more underrated books, honestly.

  2. absitnomen says:

    Hey Greg,

    All in all I agree that the novel works and pulls off the tricky bits that you mentioned; perhaps I didn’t go for it because I didn’t like the truth that it reveals and middle age and regret.

    I’ve got to admit that I’ve not been able to get much into Murakami’s short fiction (with the notable exception of After the Quake), possibly because he doesn’t have as much time to sell me on the surrealism. Which is all by the way of saying: I haven’t seen as many of those better developed female characters as you, but that doesn’t mean HM doesn’t have them. I can think of three characters from other novels that get more attention than Yukiko: Sumire (Sputnik Sweetheart), and Midori (Norwegian Wood), and Kumiko (Wind-up Bird Chronicle). They’re either the sort of genki, daffy, tangible women who are essentially manic pixie dream girls, or they’re grappling with severe mental problems of their own (somehow I think Kumiko’s struggle with Noboru Wataya is given a little more weight than Naoko’s struggle with mental illness and depression, which is a bit of a paradox given that Norwegian Wood is much more realist than WUBC). In any case, they get more attention that Yukiko.

    As for his later, longer work that I have read, I don’t remember Kafka on the Shore having particularly nuanced, detailed female characters; Ms. Saeki’s depth has to do with the past she can’t let go, and she drifts through space much like Shimamoto (maybe HM had to characterize her this way to push forward the Oedipus plot in the book). There’s also the librarian, but there are a few arguments against Oshima-as-a-fully-drawn character as well: 1) as much as anything Oshima serves to provide exposition and 2) Oshima is specifically androgynous, so much so that many people think she is a man; she’s almost a trope that HM uses to question gender and characterization. But even if Oshima is meant as a reasonable replacement for the sort of over-the-top romanticism of Ms. Saeki, she is still an outlier. Yukiko, Kumiko, and the other housewives are more common in everyday experience, and I think they should get their due.

    And you’re right: Yukiko does have depths, but Murakami elides them; Initially I thought this he did this to maintain the economy that so impressed me, or even out of a certain kind of respect, but looking back on it I suspect that Hajime does this because it’s his story, and damn all if any woman is going to make it more complicated on her terms. And while this is Hajime’s sin, so to speak, and not Murakami’s, HM did choose to write about Hajime. What about Yukiko’s regrets, her feelings about her past?


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