Jarv’s Favourite Books. Number 1: South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

To be absolutely honest, some of my favourite reviews/ articles that we do on here are the ones where we step slightly outside cinema and discuss other things. In particular, I’ve always really enjoyed Xi’s excellent book reviews, and I’ve thrown in a few thoughts of my own (usually on return from holiday). However, I’ve always held off reviewing books in full (honourable exception to I, Lucifer) as I find it more of a struggle to write outside my comfort zone. Furthermore, there’s something very personal about novel preferences- one of the first things I always did when hooking up when I was younger was inspect any books that she may have had, not to the extent of the main character in the Rachel Papers, because that’s just creepy and such psuedo poseur behaviour rankles with me, but I have always believed that a persons taste in literature informs about their character. It’s subconscious of me, and I do have to say massively hypocritical given that I read omnivorously and my bookshelf is a mix of the stupendously high-brow and the staggeringly low brow, and I’ve read all of them and it’s disconcerting to see the likes of Ulysses resting up against Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Mrs. Jarv’s, honest). So, with some reluctance, I’ve now decided to run a review series on some of my favourite novels, and I’ll go into why in a second.

For years Mrs Jarv and I have been wondering why nobody has ever attempted to adapt Haruki Murakami to the big screen. Not some of the more insane works such as The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Dance Dance Dance, Kafka on the Shore or (particularly) Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but his other works, and in particular Norwegian Wood, are screaming for an adaptation. Norwegian Wood is a stunning novel, an absolutely tragic story with a devastating denouement, and it finally comes to the UK Cinemas this month. I’m not sure whether or not I’m pleased about that.

However, as good as Norwegian Wood is, and it is certainly his most famous novel, it isn’t my favourite. That award goes to the book that is in many ways the dry run for the later work, the simply heartbreaking and emotionally draining South of the Border, West of the Sun. Norwegian Wood is so good, and deals with a very similar story to this, that the older, slighter novella has simply slipped from view, and it’s a shame, because South of the Border is a truly underrated and incredibly taut novel that allows a simple story to develop gently, and lets a tragedy play out between two truly unforgettable characters.

The Times pompously described South of the Border as “Casablanca remade Japanese style” which is absolute hogwash. In fact, I struggle to think of a less fitting description for it. The Guardian were much nearer the mark with “A story of love in a cool climate” but that isn’t really correct either. South of the Border, West of the Sun is an extended suicide note, a bleak and tragic tale of lost love and the passage of time. It’s a work of sparse beauty, and although slim, manages to cram more meaning, character development and sheer poetry into its short size than many lengthier novels.

Hajime is growing up in suburban post-war Japan. Every day he spends time with his best friend Shimamoto, who weathers a minor disability with serene calm, listening to her father’s music collection. In these quiet afternoons the seeds of the eventual tragedy are sown, and once Shimamoto moves away there is an emptiness in Hajime that he never really manages to fill. South of the Border tracks his life, and the accidental devastation he wreaks on the women in it, as he sleepwalks to minor success as owner of a Jazz bar and reasonable peace with wife Yukiko. Unfortunately, his life is completely overturned when Shimamoto comes back to him- beautiful, intense, and clearly broken.

This is a simply stunning book. It’s a touch melodramatic, sure, but something that would ordinarily annoy me intensely works in this context purely because Hajime is, despite being a blithering numpty, a likable man. He’s essentially honest, eschewing the opportunity for insider trading, and essentially decent. He wants to do the right thing in his life, but the sense of emptiness and unfinished business that hangs over the first two-thirds of the novel has eaten away at his soul. Shimamoto, on the other hand, when she returns is a stunningly beautiful woman, wrapped in a shroud of misery and mystery and Hajime never stands a chance.

It’s the character of Shimamoto that provides the novel with one of its greatest strengths. Murakami never explains what she was up to in the interim, it’s hinted at, but never investigated, although the clear implication is that it was borderline criminal, perhaps prostitution, and she’s tired not just of her old life but of existence itself. This is a woman who’s happiest times were spent as a disabled child listening to music, and when she rediscovers Hajime, she is doing so to partially recapture this childhood time before self-inflicted death. Hajime has her number and can see when things went wrong- they just simply grew apart, but he muses that “I should have stayed as close as I could to her. I needed her, and she needed me. But my self-consciousness was too strong, and I was too afraid of being hurt.” In a nutshell, he’s summarised a typical feeling of childhood love turning into teenage awkwardness, and brilliantly established the latter stages of the book.

Which brings me on to the writing itself. I know this is a translation, but there’s a sadness that seeps off the page, and Murakami seems to have deliberately accentuated this by allowing Hajime to articulate his feelings with little passages such as “Yet I held myself back, back on the surface of the moon, stuck in this lifeless world. And in the end, she left me and my life was lost all over again”. Beautiful.

On reflection, though, I think that South of the Border has some of my favourite writing by any author in it. It’s got a wonderful feeling of melancholy that permeates the tale, and provides the signature of the novel. South of the Border has a haunting beauty, a feeling of dreadful sympathy for the characters seeps off the page and the ending, as devastating as it is has an air of both inevitability and rightness, Hajime cannot keep living as a husk of a human being- he’s never mourned the lost friendship, and South of the Border, West of the Sun is effectively about the suicide of his nascent emotions.

Finally, before I sum up, the title itself suggests suicide- and is a combination of a Nat King Cole song, South of the Border- which to Hajime and Shimamoto is a wonderful place full of beauty and boundless possibility and the condition Hysteria Siberiana (which I suspect is made up for these purposes). Shimamoto explains it thus:

Day after day they watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You throw your plough aside, and your head completely empty of thought, you begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun.

Hajime, the thoughtful type wonders what is west of the sun- and Shimamoto informs him that it’s “Maybe nothing. Or maybe something. At any rate, it’s different from South of the Border”. It is- south of the border is a land of promise and hope, whereas for the two adults, west of the sun represents nothing but a cold and lonely death. It’s that the two characters have matured, and abandoned their childhood hope for the harsh certainly of broken suicide, and it’s this central idea that gives this novel it’s cold beauty and makes it one of my favourite all time books.

PS- Mrs. Jarv wept buckets when she read this.

I truly recommend Murakami as an author, but beware of the more schizophrenic novels- they aren’t easy going. Instead, if you have never read one of his books, start here- it’s a heartbreaking and beautiful work of understated melancholy and as such I thoroughly recommend it, even more so than Norwegian Wood. Just do me a favour, Hollywood, don’t film this one.

I’ll be doing these intermittently, so until next time,


About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

21 responses to “Jarv’s Favourite Books. Number 1: South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami”

  1. Jarv says :

    Fabulous book this. Future titles will include:

    Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
    Novel with Cocaine by Ageyev
    Abarat by Clive Barker
    Adios muchachos by Daniel chavarria
    The Flashman books
    The Wasp Factory
    The barrytown trilogy by Roddy Doyle

  2. L Bronco says :

    Ah-best write up you’ve done in yonks.

    It is odd- because I too place a lot of credence in the kinds of books a person reads, and whether they read at all.

    For me, reading is about the only positive activity i do that can calm my brain, so I go through spurts depending on what kind of employment/activity/responsibilities are happening in day to day life.

    This year, I have been on a reading bender probably unlike any I have done since being in high school, owing to discovering several new authors in a very short space of time:

    Since the New Year… maybe 20 books? 30? Maybe 10,000 pages? Maybe 3.5 Million words?

    Only one clunker out of the whole lot-King’s Lisey’s Story-was experimental rubbish.

    anyway, I’ve not read a single one of those authors you mention Jarv-so I look forward to any reviews when you get around to them.

    “Literary” fiction I almost always tend to find tedious, self-serving and insulated. New York Times bestseller more often than not means it’s a piece of shit, in my honest opinion.

    I imagine fucking retarded literary review types hanging out in New York City attending some kind of fucking idiotic Ivy league school circle jerking each other while applying to literary journals.

    Fuck those people and fuck 80 percent of the paper they waste describing their neurotic, navel-gazing.

    That said the 20 percent that is good, can be soul-shattering and modern-illuminating and prescient.

    So, I look forward to your reviews.

    Oh, and Xi-I got Pressfield’s “Last Of the Amazons”-I’ll be sure to let you know.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Yeah let me know Bronco, I’ve never read it.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Bronco.

      I love Waugh. One of my favourite authors full stop and only wrote a handful of bad books ever.

      “Literary” fiction I almost always tend to find tedious, self-serving and insulated. New York Times bestseller more often than not means it’s a piece of shit, in my honest opinion.

      This, I totally agree with. I’ve been burnt by so many fucking Booker Prize Winners that I now almost treat it like something telling me books to avoid.

  3. Xiphos0311 says :

    I’ve picked up this book like a dozen times over the last decade and for what ever reason I never pulled the trigger on buying it. After reading this review that neglect on my part will cease immediately, thanks Jarv.

    • Jarv says :

      This is a depressing book, but shear fucking poetry- it’s not light reading at all.

      On the other hand, I really rate Murakami as an author, and this is the best place to start- it isn’t big, so is easy to get in to. It also serves as a nice counter-point to Norwegian Wood, which is where I’d go for the second one.

      If you fancy the more challenging ones, Hard Boiled Wonderland is fucking inaccessible with a story that makes not a jot of sense. It’s actually two books flimsily welded together.

      Dance Dance Dance is batshit loopy on every level, and doesn’t make a jot of sense. It’s also creepy in places and filled with some really memorable characters. It’s almost noir, which is good.

      The Wind Up Bird Chronicle- again, fucking huge, and almost completely inaccessible. Has an interesting premise but makes your brain bleed.

      Kafka on the Shore- totally surreal.

      See how you do with SOTBWOTS and NW, but the rest of them are very different.

  4. just pillow talk says :

    Hmmm…you’ve got me torn here. It sounds very intriguing, but generally I stay away from depressing stuff.

    Perhaps I’ll give it a whirl at some point.

    While entirely inapprorpriate considering the book and the nature of your review, I would have appreciated some well placed cunts thrown in. They couldn’t have been thrown in anywhere mind you…probably when mentioning The Times description of the book would have been a good spot.

    “The Times pompously described South of the Border as “Casablanca remade Japanese style” which is absolute hogwash, THE DELLUSIONAL BUNCH OF DUMB CUNTS.”

    • Jarv says :


      I could have thrown some casual racism in as well.

      When I get round to the Barrytown novels then there’s swearing aplenty, because they’re full of creative swearing. (One of them’s The Commitments)

  5. redfishybluefishy says :

    yes, you have my curiosity piqued regarding this novel. great write up. i kind of like the no swearing for a change of pace. 😉

  6. redfishybluefishy says :

    sold! now to work some reading time into my schedule…

  7. goregirl says :

    Great review Jarv…South of the Border is going right to the top of my reading queue!

  8. Droid says :

    I’ve read this review now. This is a book that doesn’t really appeal to me that strongly. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t read it, but I think it’s the type of book I’d read if I was out of options and I was looking through someones bookshelf. Admittedly I’ve read some decent books doing that. Essentially what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t actively seek out a book about 2 people committing suicide.

    Nice review Jarv.

  9. ThereWolf says :

    I tend to steer clear of this kind of stuff. I worry about it going over my head. I know it’s a stupid way to think but I can’t help meself. I’m just a peasant, man.

    A superbly written review.

    • Jarv says :

      Thanks Wolf- this is a really straightforward book, honest. Just a depressing one.

      • ThereWolf says :

        You weren’t wrong about ‘I, Lucifer’ so I trust your judgement here.

      • Jarv says :

        It’s very different material to Lucifer- less funnies. Well recommended though- Murakami is an interesting author.

        Mrs. Jarv loves this book.

      • Continental Op says :

        (Spoiler alert)

        [T]his is a really straightforward book, honest.

        I disagree. I’m not at all certain what kind of being the adult Shimamoto is. I think that she is a ghost from the point at which her limp disappears.

      • Jarv says :

        That is a great idea, and one that has never occurred to me. It would also explain the vampiric overtones present in the blow job later.

        Shimamoto is also, arguably, a dream bought to life- summoned by his mid life crisis.

        Again, though this is clumsy writing on my behalf- I meant ” compared to almost every other Murakami”

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