South of the Border, West of the Sun

I have been looking for quite some time to get my hands on this first book by the only Haruki Murakami, and I was totally entranced. Now he is known for the more bizarre or surreal twists to his story, but this one is much more simple but yet felt so much more honest, real and melancholic. There is no missing cat, no venturing off into another world, just a plain story about a middle-aged man wishing for something more in his life.

The story centers around Hajime, a 37-year old owner of two Jazz clubs, happily married to his wife Yukiko. The first half of the story is a recall of his childhood at 12 years old, where he was friends with a girl called Shimamoto, whom he fell in love with. She is a precocious and strong-willed girl and an only child just like him even though she had a limp leg, which in turn gave her that much more character and thus a deeper impression on Hajime who calls it “a terrible load of psychological baggage…that made her a tougher, more self-possessed only child than I could have ever been”. After school, they spent a lot of time together listening to music of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and revel on an understanding of what its like being only children in their family. How they enjoy their music together struck a chord to me because being an only child myself, it is a very comforting and satisfying feeling to have specified interests and focus on it. They hold hands for 10 seconds, and Hajime knew a that time that she was the one.

“I was always attracted not by some quantifiable, external beauty, but by something deep down, something absolute. I liked that certain undefinable something directed at me by members of the opposite sex. For want of a better word, call it magnetism. Like it or not, it’s a power that ensnares people and reels them in.”

Anyways, time of course passes and Hajime had to move away for secondary school. The two friends drifted apart as Hajime moved on further to high school, university, different relationships up until he hurt one girl very badly. However time and time again, Shimamoto would drift into his mind, wandering what has become of her and if they will cross paths again. After job turn-downs, disappointing relationships, flings, he met and married the simple Yukiko and they had two beautiful daughters. What he had was simple, beautiful…enough.

As I read further, I knew that in to time Shimamoto was going to walk into his life once more…she did and he was propelled into the mysterious realm of her life. Now elegant and beautiful, she would come and disappear every once in a while which could turn out to be the only surreal element. It leaves us with suspicions, suggestions of ties with a dark and sinister world she’s unable to escape. Therefore, Shimamoto could just be a figment of his imagination, slipping in and out of his consciousness. Only objects remain when she once visited his club one evening: an empty glass, and lipstick-stained Salems (a brand of cigarettes) in an ashtray. Are they all really proof of anything? Now that could be the only surrealism element in the book which has become a hallmark in many of his works and you will always wonder why? what? What is she fleeing from? She doesn’t divulge her circumstances, and do we ever find out?

It’s a short but a beautiful book on a love lost, and the madness of it all with Shimamoto has rendered everything in his life meaningless and tempts him to abandon his current life with Yukio. Then it brings him confusion when she started to disappear yet he is driven by his love for Shimamoto. Now is it part of human nature to want something that’s…unobtainable? What is it that drives us crazy, the exhilarating of the chase? When what you want is just within the reach of your hand yet it’s just never enough to finally come to a touch? Some of us go on living, moving forward. While a few of us live but always looking back with half a heart in the present and the other half somewhere else, always trying to recapture a past that is long gone. Even though what they experienced after a long separation was all-consuming, passionate, Hajime and Shimamoto are unable to recapture the sense of “perfection” or innocence during their youth. She is unable to provide him a path, or assurance for them to just glide off into the sunset. ”The sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward,” Shimamoto tells Hajime. ”Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

This book left me with a feeling of melancholy and at the same time hope that when we really do leave some things in the past, it will be for the best…that we can really find something better south of the border, west of the sun.

“The void is simply that, a void. I’ve been in that void before and forced myself to adjust. And now, finally, I end up where I began and I’d better get used to it. No one will weave dreams for me – it is my turn to weave dreams for others. That’s what I have to do. Such dreams may have no power, but if my own life is to have any meaning at all, that is what I have to do.”

– Hajime