South of the Border, West of the Sun

By Haruki Murakami

For readers who like to sample the world’s finest, Japan’s Haruki Murakami is already a familiar name. He is best known for his epic Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of the most challenging and original works of world literature of the past decade (it was published in a one-volume English translation in 1997). In fact, Chronicle was so complete a triumph, it left me wondering what he would be able to do for an encore.

South of the Border, West of the Sun signals a change in direction. On the face of it, it is a simple love story. Hajime and Shimamoto first meet at elementary school. They are both only children, share similar tastes in music, and have an affection for each other that is mature beyond their years. But, as with most childhood friendships, they grow apart.

Years pass. Hajime becomes involved with other women, then marries and settles into a respectable life as the owner-operator of a successful jazz bar. With a pair of children, his life seems to be complete. But his imagination dwells upon the woman lost. Then, mysteriously, Shimamoto re-appears. Hajime’s feelings for her are renewed and deepened. Before long he is involved in a dangerously escalating affair that threatens more than just his marriage.

Murakami is an extremely gifted author. The unobtrusively symbolic world he describes is so rich and strange it could almost be our own. His writing is filled with a kind of magical vision that sees the supernatural in the real. But while it may seem weird, it is never alienating because the themes he deals with are universal.

At heart, South of the Border is a reflection on time and the loss of love. Not the loss of a loved one, or even the loss of an opportunity to love, but the loss of imagination that makes love possible. It is an allegory of the romantic light that fails – with age, under the weight of social responsibilities, or through its consummation in the physical act.

This is not a big novel, but it is a work of remarkable insight and depth. Whatever direction Murakami decides to go in next, we can be confident in his ability to amaze.

Review first published March 13, 1999.


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