Murakami's Fiction as Spicy as Tofu
We've all had enough of whiny, look-at-me-and-what-I've-been-through books. At this point they've become trite and just about unbearable. Which is why Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun is hard to get into--the book commences with what seems to be an attitude of complaint about the unfair hardships of adolescence. The main character, Hajime, is a young man growing up in a "small, quiet town" in Japan. He lives a normal life in a neighborhood where all the houses match and everyone has a cat or a dog. But he's different--he's an only child in a world of big families, and that means, of course, that he, like all children, must deal with some degree of ostracization. At the novel's beginning, it seems that this is going to be the focus of the story--that we're going to hear a "pity-me" story about the poor, abused, only child growing up in a world full of brothers and sisters. Hajime complains, "I detested the term only child. Every time I heard it, I felt something was missing from me--like I wasn't quite a complete human being." Okay, Okay, that's very sad, but do we really care?
Luckily the novel doesn't develop into the whiny piece that the opening chapters promise it will be. Murakami salvages a passable story out of what seems to be headed straight for crash-and-burn. Ultimately it's a book about love--a unique book in that the love with which it deals is fairly singular. The book doesn't seem to be trying to expose some broad message or preach anything to us. It is simply telling another story of love, loss and happiness.
The poor, misunderstood, only child Hajime meets just one other only child in his boyhood: Shimamoto, the beautiful girl with whom he shares a love for music and a rather precocious sense of his own sexuality. Their separation at the beginning of high school only adds to the turmoil of both lives, as we will see later in the book. For the time being however, we are left to watch the mildly painful spectacle of Hajime growing up, still slightly obsessed with the memory of Shimamoto.
Hajime gets married at 30, and here the meat of the story begins to take shape. Hajime is happy--he opens two successful bars, has a loving wife, two children and all that, it seems, he could possibly want. But when Shimamoto suddenly shows up again, after 25 years of separation, a whirlwind of uncertainty takes control. And if the book can be considered really to say anything, it is at this point: Murakami asks us to reconsider our notions of happiness and contentment, to reevaluate the priorities and the labeling of "successes" in our lives.
At the climax of the story, Hajime has to decide between his contented domesticity and realizing his dream of life with Shimamoto. Typically, he's faced with the dissatisfaction of what he has to leave behind. Unfortunately the protagonist doesn't even develop into a tragic hero because he doesn't seem to realize the importance of the quandary before him. What is frustrating about all this is that we are left searching for a point. It's a good story, but not that good. And the statement, if there is any, is not clear--so the book leaves us wondering not only what the point was, but why we took the time to read it.
South of the Border, West of the Sun can only gain a lukewarm reception from readers who, for the most part, can't identify with anything in the novel (besides, perhaps, the rather trite description of the painful process of adolescence), and who don't seem to have anything to gain by reading it. We are asked to think about happiness and its definition--that seems to be about it. And so we're left with a question, which in many cases is a suitable ending to a good book. Unfortunately in this case, the question is "Why did I read this?"