South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
‘For a while’ is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.
— Haruki Murakami
I’ve been trying to broaden the genre and writers of the books I’ve been reading this year, so I read South of the Border, West of the Sun as recommended by my wife. I devoured it in just a few two hour reading sessions, and Murakmi’s simple and straightforward writing style mixed with the beautiful imagery he weaves left me thinking about the book long after I finished reading.
In the novel we are placed into the point of view of Hajime, an only child born into a family in postwar Japan. Early on Hajime explains the stigma behind being an only child, and how he has always felt distant from his peers because they are in families with brothers and sisters. That is until he meets Shimamoto, another only child his age, a girl who walks with a limp because of polio, who is assigned to sit with him in class because they are neighbours.
Hajime and Shimamoto form a close bond. They like and dislike the same things, and they listen to classical music on the couch for long afternoons together, Shimamoto placing records from her father’s collection on and off the turntable in a sacred ritual. She shares Hajime’s love of books and music, and the experience of being only children. Hajime feels that he has finally found someone to connect to, someone who breaks into his lonely and solitary life, a person who fills the missing part of his soul in a way that nobody else could. There is an undercurrent of love and desire between the two, though neither of them recognise it because they are so young.
Inevitably, as young people often do, the two of them drift apart when they go to different high schools, Shimamoto’s being only one town over. Despite visiting her a few times on the short trip, Hajime eventually stops going. He rationalises this to himself, thinking that Shimamoto has new friends and wouldn’t miss him anyway. He concludes that it would be awkward, that they would be too different. We later find that Shimamoto had been hurt and confused by his absence, and had always waited for him to come visit, never having another friend in her life.
In high school Hajime finds new confidence through swimming, forming a physique and hobby that lasts him the rest of his life, and fosters a deeper interest in books and music. He has a few close friends, and stops feeling like a sickly only child. Hajime even has a girlfriend, a plain girl called Izumi.
Hajime desperately wants to have sex with Izumi, especially after their first kiss. She is reluctant however, and not ready to take that huge step in her life. Hajime becomes increasingly frustrated with her and cannot help but compare her to Shimamoto, with whom he shared a deeper connection. This is why he is able to, with minimal internal conflict, enter into a tempestuous sexual relationship with Izumi’s cousin, a girl who she had grown up with. He describes his attraction to her as “magnetism”, and to him their relationship has nothing to do with love, rather Hajime’s seeking of the “sense of being tossed about some raging, savage force, in the midst of which lay something absolutely crucial”.
In the end, Izumi discovers their affair, and is completely destroyed by it. Hajime sees her only once afterward and tries to explain to her that it was an act of passion, that his betrayal had nothing to do with their relationship, though this just deepens Izumi’s hurt and resentment. The experience leaves Hajime with a feeling of self loathing, as he wonders who he truly is and grapples with the realisation that he can do evil. His propensity towards infidelity, and how he struggles with these urges while trying to be a good man, is a core theme of the novel.
Hajime spends his twenties working an unfulfilling job, unable to connect with new coworkers or start new relationships, withdrawing into himself and his own interests on a kind of self-imposed exile. He drifts through life until one day while shopping he sees a woman in a red coat who limps like Shimamoto used to. Hajime chases after her through the busy streets of Tokyo, and sits near her in a cafe for hours without plucking up the courage to talk to her. This is partially because he is unsure if it is her and partially because he feels guilty about how he never went to see her after she moved away. When he tries to chase her to a taxi and finally talk to her a mysterious man confronts him and gives him an envelope full of cash to stay away from Shimamoto. The whole encounter is so dreamlike that Hajime is unsure if it even happened, though the money is still in his dresser drawer the next morning.
Upon looking back this encounter feels like a turning point in the novel, an entrance into an alternate timeline by Hajime. Without it, he may have eventually forgotten Shimamoto and continued living his life the way he had been. This is not the case, however, as Shimamoto had seen his face as she climbed into the cab. And so, many years later, when Hajime has married and opened two successful and trendy bars with the help of his rich father-in-law, Shimamoto re-enters his life, drifting into Hajime’s bar the Robin’s Nest one rainy night. Hajime’s life is thrown upside-down by Shimamoto, who has had her leg fixed in the years since their last meeting. She is now a mysterious woman, reserved, beautiful, and elegant all at once, who refuses to reveal anything about her past or present situation. One thing is constant though, the two of them pick back up right where they left off. Though he has two children and a wife in Yukiko, Hajime begins to feel the pull of his old urges, and he grapples with his feelings for Shimamoto and his responsibility toward his own family.
After this first visit, Shimamoto does not come back for a long time, and Hajime almost gives up hope of seeing her again. But on another rainy night months later, she appears at the Robin’s Nest once more. In some ways she is like Jenny from Forrest Gump, drifting in and out of the main character’s life like some otherworldly muse. She has a strange request for him, to visit a river. Hajime remembered a beautiful river and town he had visited on the other side of the country while he was backpacking as a student, and in yet another act of betrayal of a woman he loves he lies to his wife and tells her that he is going to a conference so he can travel to the river with Shimamoto. It is on this day together that we learn that Shimamoto lost a baby a day after it was born, and the purpose of the trip was to scatter the child’s ashes. It is also on this day that Hajime, as their flight back to Tokyo is delayed, considers never going back to his wife and children and instead running away with Shimamoto.
Hajime continues seeing Shimamoto every week for the next few months, either at the Robin’s Nest or going out for lunch together. His wife suspects that there is something different about him, or something going on with his life, but he just shrugs it off or lies to her about what he is doing. Eventually Shimamoto, following the same pattern, disappears again, leaving a note to say that she “probably” won’t be able to come back “for a while”. Hajime once again becomes lost and purposeless. He tries to fill the void Shimamoto has left once again by burying himself in work, redesigning both of his bars, spending time with his wife and children, and swimming. He knows he cannot keep living the way he is, feeling like he is “stuck on the airless surface of the moon” and that if Shimamoto was gone for good, he would have no-one to connect with and talk about his true feelings with, as if he were an only child again.
For the final time Shimamoto reappears on another rainy night after months of absence. The only thing their final meeting can lead to is something that has been built up for twenty-five years, ever since they were twelve years old. They travel together to Hajime’s cabin in Hakone, the cabin he had visited with his family time and again, and they have sex. This final betrayal of his family, the succumbing to the allure of the past, is a catharsis that Hajime needs to move past Shimamoto. She leaves in the middle of the night, and he never sees her again.
We are left with the doubt that Shimamoto even existed, or at least I was. To me she was a manifestation of his mid-life crisis, and a representation of his tendency to look for that unattainable past, ignoring the present in the process. She barely interacts with other people in the novel, and she disappears from a remote cabin after she and Hajime consummate their passion, leaving in the middle of night with no car, the Nat King Cole record she had given to Hajime disappearing along with her. Later, when Hajime checks his dresser drawer for the envelope of money the mysterious man gave him, he finds it is no longer there. This is a novel about the dangers living in the past or the future, and not giving your all to your loved ones in the present. It reminds me in a way of the fall of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, as described by Gandalf:
Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry, or in high cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin.
If you do this you will always be trying to capture something that will always be out of reach, and you will never be satisfied. Memory and recollection is good, planning for the future and having goals is good, but dwelling in these timeless never-worlds is bad for your soul. South of the border is an idyllic place, one we all strive to reach, but to the west of the sun lies only death and ruin. In the end, it is Yukiko and her love that pulls Hajime out of his depths of despair, and they decide to start life anew together. This beautiful quote finishes the book:
Until someone came and lightly rested a hand on my shoulder, my thoughts were of the sea.