South of the Border, West of the Sun: Longing for something that never was
Illustration: Sabrina Gevaerd, 'South of the Border, West of the Sun'
Haruki Murakami’s 1992 novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun, offers a tale of two childhood sweethearts and the joyous disbelief in finding love later in life.
When I first read Murakami, I found myself unusually intrigued - and equally disturbed - by his ambitious and alluring sense for writing. The Wind Up Bird-Chronicle (1994) was my introduction, a part detective story with powerful themes of antic comedy, all surrounding a lost cat and a lethargic focus on a well. It, unsurprisingly, left me gasping for more.
South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992) was the fourth book that I had read from Murakami's eclectic collection of works. Though I found it not to be as fascinatingly superstitious as Kafka on the Shore (2002) or as romantically gut-wrenching as Norwegian Wood (1987), its story affords a unique opportunity that perhaps is not addressed enough.
Concerning the plight of a pair of lovers, what sets this story apart from most ‘traditional’ love stories is its composure in longing for an unreclaimable past.
When Hajime and Shimamoto first meet, they are 12 years old. They bond simply on the mutual recognition of one thing, 'only child syndrome': they are selfish, spoiled and maladjusted; accorded to society as outcasts, plainly on the fact that they lack a sibling figure. Because of this, the two share a bond of great symphony. Their likeness develops through personal exchanges of childish affection, bolstered by the charming collection of artists like Nat (King) Cole, Lizt's and Duke Ellington. However, like most childhood friendships, situational circumstance takes precedence: Hajime moves away to a nearby town, and the small distance, given their age, feels all too large. Approaching middle age, an affluent family man conjured by a dispassionate marriage, Hajime drifts both by the memories of past romance, and a longing for an old friend.
The first part of the novel's title corresponds to a song recorded by Nat (King) Cole; the second refers to a Siberian syndrome known as 'Hysteria Siberiana'. These are important, as they effectively understate Hajime's mid-life crisis, and why he is who is. Though this book feels substantially ordinary, it carries a complete jigsaw-puzzle story - not unusual for Murakami - one that might cause frustration for anyone bothered by loose ends.
Hajime is a passive, introspective and tempered character. Likeable to a sense, he drifts through life with an undisturbed acceptance. Owning a profitable jazz bar, a BMW 320, and being the father to two children, one could contribute a successful one too. However, when Shimamoto makes an unannounced reappearance twenty years later, these seeming successes drift into a puzzling labyrinth of questions, doubts and mystery. The reality of Hajime's life, its inauthenticity, is applauded through his irrepressible hunger for passion. Like a clang of long-lost lovers, Hajime and Shimamoto spend their first night sharing stories on their lives; only now with a crass maturity and an equal loss of innocence.
"For a long time, she held a special place in my heart. I kept this special place just for her, like a 'Reserved' sign on a quiet corner table in a restaurant. Despite the fact that I was sure I'd never see her again"
When Shimamoto leaves that evening, Hajime is left with nothing but objects: an empty lipstick-stained glass, a stubbed cigarette in the ashtray. Wondering whether or not he would see her again, tied only to 'maybes' and obscure promises, Hajime's attachment to her is tossed into a raging, savage and uncoordinated force. He arises into an extreme emotional state, one that deviates his reality and delves into an intense conflict between honesty and deception.
To Hajime, by simply living and following forces that lie beyond his control, he feels as though he is hurting others in ways that he cannot repair. Though he feels contempt for his family, an undeniable fact that haunts him throughout the novel - particularly during the second act - is his unrequited lust towards Shimamoto. This obsession eventually conspires itself to how he should continue to live his life. Hysteria Siberiana or 'Siberian Hysteria' is referenced as a disorder complied with an unknowing journey; where monotony brings about a series of irrational acts followed by amnesia, and eventually, death. Hajime balances logic over reason, rationality over irrationality, stability over the unknown. If he entertains his love for Shimamoto, he sacrifices his current family and life for the undetermined. Equally, its alternative will inevitably lead to disappointment.
What Murakami is suggesting here, albeit through the surrealism that has become a hallmark of his work, is the arising emotional state that Hajime and Shimamoto are incapable of resurrecting, the lost perfection of their youth.
"The sad thing 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"
Retrospective of this, Hajime is a man afflicted with a dispassionate life. His relationship with Shimamoto, one that lacks any affliction of substance, is stimulated through one thing: nostalgia. Though they each believe that something wonderful lies beyond the horizon, they instead are lost to something that never existed.
Though South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means Murakami's strongest, it provides a style and tone of great complexity; one on the fickle crassness of love. Instead of choosing to live in the moment, Hajime remains shrouded in his own memories, longing for something that was never there to begin with.