Haruki Murakami is arguably the most well-known Japanese author in the west. His unique writing style has captured the attention of readers all over the world and one of his most memorable books is South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.
Focusing on the relationship between two childhood friends who reconnect in their thirties, South Of The Border, West Of The Sun contains all the classic tropes of a Murakami novel. There’s jazz, joy, heartbreak and the indomitable willpower of the human spirit to go after what it yearns for.
A dream-like book with relatable characters
The novel’s protagonist, Hajime, has grown up in post-WW2 Japan and can’t shake the feeling of loneliness that dogs him through his life. An only child, Hajime finds comfort in the friendship he develops with a girl called Shimamoto in his neighbourhood. But when he moves away, they lose touch and from that point on, Hajime constantly searches for a way to fill the void inside himself.
All through his teenage years and twenties, he feels as if he’s unable to find what’s missing. But in his thirties, Hajime is married, has two children, owns a couple of bars and lives what could be considered a successful life on the surface. But when Shimamoto suddenly comes back into his life, he’s transported to a past full of fond memories.
Murakami weaves beauty and nuance into Hajime and Shimamoto’s relationship. There’s one scene that involves them taking a trip to Ishikawa which is particularly beautiful and heart-breaking, which effectively sums up the nature of their bond. In Shimamoto, Hajime sees the promise of a life that he’s been waiting for since he was a child. But Shimamoto cloaks herself in a veil of ‘probablys’ and ‘maybes,’ disappearing and reappearing like a ghost.
The language of the book conjures a dream-like feeling that settles on the reader. Whether it’s through examining how Hajime sees himself or the ephemeral quality of Shimamoto’s actions, there’s a sense of being lulled on a gentle current towards an unstoppable ocean.
Hidden truths come to light
One of my favourite aspects of Murakami’s writing is his eloquence in describing feelings like loneliness and despondency. Hajime sums this up in the following passage:
“I always feel as if I’m struggling to become someone else. As if I’m trying to find a new place, grab hold of a new life, a new personality. I suppose it’s part of growing up, yet it’s also an attempt to re-invent myself. By becoming a different me, I could free myself of everything. I seriously believed I could escape myself – as long as I made the effort. But I always hit a dead end. No matter where I go, I still end up me. What’s missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I’m still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture me with a hunger that I can never satisfy. I think that lack itself is as close as I’ll come to defining myself.”
This dissatisfaction is played against a backdrop of old jazz records, such as Nat King Cole’s ‘Pretend.’ It’s the perfect combination of hypocrisy and self-awareness. The kind of attitude that is so prevalent in the human condition and it’s unflinchingly real.