Books,  Reviews

The Ache of Love: Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun

Haruki Murakami’s novel South of the Border, West of the Sun is a slow tale of longing. A yearning to belong to a world of your dreams.

The novel is set in post-War Japan where the State urges its citizens to settle down with their families. The main protagonist, Hajime, is an only child, and he finds this an exception. At the age of 12 he meets another only child at school, Shimamoto (which is her last name, her first name is never mentioned). She walks with a limp and is mature way beyond her years. Hajime and Shimamoto spend their evenings after school at her home, listening to music. The title South of the Border is derived from one of Nat King Cole’s songs that they enjoy listening to together.  They grow closer and feel comfortable in sharing every thought with each other. However Hajime has to change schools. With time they drift apart and lose touch with each other.

Hajime carries on with life, getting involved in new relationships which don’t quite work out. He hurts some women with his reckless behaviour. He is not ambitious and flows where life takes him. All this while, he cannot forget Shimamoto.  He works in a boring job which doesn’t interest him in the least. Along the way, he gets married and has two children. His rich father-in-law helps him step upwards on the societal ladder. And eventually he owns two jazz bars, which do well and keep him occupied.

At this point in time, Shimamoto returns to his life. Where has she been all this while? Has she been married? Or is she single? Will Hajime throw away his lovely family and his girls for Shimamoto? What will influence his decisions? How will his wife react to this news? Can the two lovers catch up on what they had lost in the years gone by? Is Hajime chasing an elusive dream?

Murakami’s thin novel has no dramatic scenes. He describes everyday scenes with a certain languidness that is reflective of Hajime’s own laidback attitude. Philip Gabriel’s translation from the Japanese leaves much to be desired.

It is long after you have read the novel that Murakami’s philosophy stays with you. Love can be irrational. Desire can obscure logic. However as he writes in the book: ”The sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. 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.” Our tendency to cling to our pasts and to fantasize about what might have been, leaves us unable to enjoy our presents.

(South of the Border, West of the Sun, written by Haruki Murakami, Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, published by Vintage Books, Rs 499) 

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