Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017. Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book. This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.
Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan. As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’. When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch. When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar. It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.
The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane. Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’. We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know. Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency. I had to buy it for her before things disappeared. Before the world fell to pieces’. Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee. I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt. There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.
Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic. There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light. This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging. It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists. There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together. Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.