“Lingering over the corpse of a beautiful song”
At 37, Hajime is comfortably married to a woman he loves, the involved father of two daughters, a successful owner of jazz clubs—and he’s falling apart. Twenty years earlier, he betrayed his first girlfriend when he began an affair with her cousin. At the time, he had his excuses: he was driven by a powerful magnetism; what they were doing was necessary, natural, leaving no room for doubt; if he let her get away, he’d regret it for the rest of his life. But now, he’s filled with guilt and terrified by the undeniable fact that he can do evil. And he realises for the first time that when you hurt someone, you hurt yourself more.
Murakami is known for minimalist realism combined with streaks of the outlandish—a kind of magical realism, Japanese-style. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a departure from this, at least superficially. There are no frog-caused earthquakes, no philosophers dispensing wisdom from the bottom of wells. The narrator, Hajime, describes a familiar world. He lives a typical suburban life in post war Japan, except in one important detail: he’s an only child at a time when most families have two or three children. This fact haunts him. He recounts: “The phrase only child stood there, pointing an accusatory finger…Something’s missing, pal, it said.”
Then Shimamoto arrives in the neighbourhood. She walks with a limp, which makes her proud and standoffish and immediately appealing to Hajime, who’s less impressed with conventional loveliness and drawn more to the hidden qualities only he can detect. Because Shimamoto is also an only child, Hajime feels they share something potent and out-of-the-ordinary, something really ‘special’. They spend hours listening to her father’s record collection, talking and not talking.
One day, they discuss their peculiarity. “After a certain length of time has passed,” she tells him, “things harden. Like cement in a bucket. And we can’t go back anymore. The cement that makes you up has set, so the you you are now can’t be anyone else.”
When Hajime moves to a new town, contact between the two ceases, but for Hajime the memory of the friendship is transformed into an ideal of love. Nothing in the real world can compare to the unfulfilled perfection of this early connection. Hajime seeks it everywhere, in every woman, beginning with his first girlfriend Izumi, and with Izumi’s passionate cousin; then much later with his loyal wife Yukiko, and even the nameless women he occasionally sleeps with during his marriage. In every relationship, though, something is missing: the sense of completion he’s certain he’d find with Shimamoto.
Critics have dismissed the novel, complaining that Murakami has represented ‘the disappearing woman’ one too many times. There’s no payoff, they say; too little is known about Shimamoto; it’s unsatisfying; unconvincing. Many of these comments are valid, but they miss the larger issue. Murakami is interested in the delusional state of idealised love and wants to unearth the narcissism that makes betrayal come so easily to those caught up in it.
At the centre of the novel is “an affair with a capital A”. And at the centre of the affair is an echoing void. Hajime is poised on its edge.
When a high school friend turns up in the jazz club, passing along news about Izumi, who’s never recovered from Hajime’s betrayal, he also inadvertently resurrects Hajime’s lonely childhood, his guilt, and the force behind his earlier rationalisations. It’s no accident that Shimamoto returns at this critical moment. If overwhelming passionate love exists—the kind that completes you—then betrayal is allowable; it’s merely a by-product of something over which there’s no control. The one who betrays is excused, all responsibility for one’s actions conveniently taken away. Hajime has transformed his guilt about Izumi into longing for Shimamoto.
It isn’t clear that the adult Shimamoto exists. She appears in Hajime’s jazz club out of the mist on rainy nights. It’s always late, when Hajime is drinking, off reading a book in a corner of the bar.
“With me,” she tells him, “it’s all or nothing.”
It takes him a while to understand that all and nothing are the same thing: his destruction.
Subconsciously, Hajime is terrified by his capacity to act outside of the bounds of love, beyond guilt, and with no regard for the future, risking everything that matters for a phantom ideal. This is the “infinite blank” that has been inside him since he was a child, and Hajime fears it can never be filled. The crisis arrives now precisely because Hajime has so much to lose. Yukiko’s warm touch calls him back from his fantasies and from the lure of the void. With her love, he just might unfix himself from the bucket of cement.
The brilliance of Murakami’s story is that it actually doesn’t matter whether Shimamoto is a flesh and blood woman or whether she’s a figment of Hajime’s disturbed psyche. The object of any sexual infatuation exists as a projection of the lover’s internal fantasies anyway, Murakami says, and west of the sun is a country impossible to reach.
South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami, Vintage.