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,