South of the Border, West of the Sun: A few thoughts

“We were, the two of us, still fragmentary beings, just beginning to sense the presence of an unexpected, to-be-acquired reality that would fill us and make us whole. We stood in front of a door we’ve never seen before.”

Iphigene here.

In usual fashion, Murakami writes in first person through his protagonist Hajime. Like Murakami in his pre-writing days, Hajime is a jazz bar owner with no desire of growing his franchise to more than two bars. For those familiar with Murakami the average/ordinary male protagonist is a familiar voice and something most welcoming, quite unlike his novel After Dark.

This particular novel is less fantastical or convoluted than his other novels. In plot and narration, it shares the same tone as Sputnik Sweethearts and Norwegian Wood. Like the two novels, South of the Border anchors the plot on relationships both past and present.

The novel draws us in with a discussion on the rarity of being an only child, an unusual circumstance in post-war Japan. These events draw our two characters together— seemingly unfinished in their being. Though the reader has an inkling of what the implications could be, it is articulated in the last few pages of the book when Hajime tries to explain to his wife, Yukiko, his being:

“I always feel as if I’m struggling to become someone else. As if I’m trying to find a new place, grab hold of a new life, a new personality. I suppose it’s part of growing up, yet it’s also an attempt to reinvent myself. By becoming a different me, I could free myself of everything. I seriously believed I could escape myself – as long as I made the effort. But I always hit a dead end. No matter where I go, I still end up me. What’s missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I’m still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture with a hunger that I can never satisfy….for your sake I’d like to become a new person.” –Hajime to Yukiko

The fragility of the self is constant in the novel. The character devastated by experiences—broken by a previous relationship and everyone seeking a sense of completion. Everyone trying to escape the life and self they have formed, from transforming a limping leg to finding a former love.  And at some point, all of them find death as a natural course—the only option.

Common in Murakami’s novel is this theme of death, whether as part of an intellectual discussion, an actual circumstance in his novel or as a figure of speech. In South of the Border we find death as the destruction of a self (as seen in Hajime’s former girlfriend), in the suicide attempt of his wife prior to their meeting, and in the resolution of his first love. Though the story seems hopeless and miserable, where characters settle for momentary escapes to separate themselves from their Freudian unconscious issues; it remains hopeful. Unlike the other characters, Hajime struggles and so does his wife.

“The last few weeks, I really did think I would die….That’s how lonely and sad I was. Dying  is not hard…I never even thought of the children. What would happen to them after I died didn’t enter my mind…the reason I didn’t die, the reason I’m still alive, is that I thought if you were to come back to me, I would be able to take you back. It’s not a question of rights, or right or wrong…” Yukiko to Hajime

South of the Border is an easy read. Though it doesn’t have the power of Wind Up Bird Chronicles, like the said novel it explores wholeness in the arms of someone. Murakami often speaks of his novels as not intentionally symbolical; more often, they simply come as they are. Maybe so, but to the reader, we find that despite the strangeness of circumstances it touches the core of a collective unconscious.

This book isn’t for everyone. It is not without sexual relations, though delivered in the usual Murakami fashion. It is for an older audience who appreciate an unusual telling of stories, that draw us in on the strange details without offering real explanations. After all, that is the power of the first person narration.

Reading Challenge Update: 6 of 7

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  1. The 2011 Reading Challenge Round Up |

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