At its core, Haruki Murakami’s novel South of the Border, West of the Sun is about the central character, Hajime, who proves unable to make moral decisions and, instead, yields to various temptations. While Hajime realizes late in his teens that he is “a person who can do evil,” he is curiously passive when it comes to acting on his insights. He knows that he could easily hurt others again, including those who love him, should the opportunity arise.
Hajime presents a character who is not easily likable yet has a hauntingly complex nature. Murakami’s protagonist powerfully affects others yet is oddly powerless when it comes to setting directions in his own life. This contrast between Hajime’s power over others and his lack of control over his own future creates much of the dynamic tension in this provocative novel.
Because of its realism, straightforward narrative, and generally nonpolitical nature, South of the Border, West of the Sun did not immediately find an American publisher. The book is a different work from, for example, Murakami’s widely acclaimed Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994-1995; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1997), which mixes surreal elements in storytelling with political concerns about Japanese war crimes in China during World War II. This novel also does not contain the elements of science fiction or magical realism that characterize much of Murakami’s previously translated fiction in English. Yet, with its tale of a morally shiftless narrator adrift on an ocean of waxing and waning affection and desire for various women in his life, South of the Border, West of the Sun represents a subtle literary achievement that can very well stand on its own.
When the narrator is born January 4, 1951, his parents name him Hajime, which means “beginning” in Japanese. On a literal level, Hajime muses that this is because his birthday fell on “the first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the twentieth century.” His name may also allude to the new beginning of a postwar Japan that had just overcome the worst of the war’s effects. Hajime’s father survived life as a soldier and prisoner of war to become a manager, and his hometown quickly rebuilt what American bombing had destroyed.
Hajime grows up in a home built before the war, and there is a sense that, with the exception of him being an only child and thus different from most of his classmates of conventionally large families, his living situation is a metaphor for the postwar Japanese mindset of trying to pick up from a point in history before military expansionism brought on ultimate disaster, defeat, and surrender.
Yet, Murakami suggests that the price for collectively trying to forget the troubling past and to live with a kind of historical amnesia is a general lack of moral stamina and direction in life. Just as Hajime lets desire overpower him, Murakami’s novel implies that his country appears to have lost some deeper sense of history and direction. These social and political undertones appear only on a very indirect, subtle level in the novel and require some effort on behalf of the attentive reader to detect them.
Hajime grows up as somewhat of an outsider because he comes from such a small family. He becomes the close friend of Shimamoto, a girl who moves into his neighborhood and attends the same class in elementary school, which lasts for six years in Japan. Childhood polio damaged Shimamoto’s left leg, which gives her a disability in a society that, until recently, did not treat people with disabilities sensitively. While Hajime and Shimamoto do their homework, they listen to her father’s Western records. These include Nat King Cole’s song “South of the Border,” which, to them, symbolizes a vague longing for an exciting, exotic future.
Hajime reveals his morally diffident nature when, after his family moves to another school district, he stops visiting Shimamoto. He explains to himself that he feels slightly awkward to visit her without the pretext of shared homework.
Content to go with the socially acceptable flow of things, he acquires Izumi Ohara as his girlfriend and tries...
(The entire section is 1720 words.)