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South of the Border, West of the Sun
Author Alexandra Lange  
Date March 1, 1999  
Media New York Magazine  

In South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami applies his patented Japanese magic realism -- minimalist, smooth, and transcendently odd -- to a charming tale of childhood love lost. The conspiracies here are at a personal level, emphasizing the book's slightness in comparison to his last novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Hajime is happily married and runs a jazz club, but on the street one day he spots his first love, Shimamoto, a slightly lame girl who once shared his preference for Liszt. After leading him to a coffee shop, she vanishes. The rest of the novel explores, but does not reveal, why she flees. As in much of Murakami's work, the mystical denouement leaves you with more mood than satisfaction -- the perfect mood, in fact, for listening to Hajime's favorite song, Duke Ellington's "Star-Crossed Lovers."
Author Ray Sawhill  
Date February 24, 1999  

Haruki Murakami's new novel, "South of the Border, West of the Sun," has little of the deadpan daring of his 1989 "A Wild Sheep Chase," or of such later works as "Dance Dance Dance" (1994) and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" (1997). "South of the Border" is narrated by a successful though vaguely unhappy jazz bar owner named Hajime. Once, as a child, he'd had a perfect friendship, with a crippled girl named Shimamoto. But he moved away, and he has gone on to break some hearts, marry, prosper and lose his ideals. Then, as in a scene from a movie (Murakami leans heavily on "Casablanca" throughout), Shimamoto walks into one of Hajime's clubs, flourishes a cigarette and asks for a light. Hajime starts to feel whole again -- yet not quite. The passing of time and the shame of betrayal keep getting in the way. And anyway, is this new, grown-up Shimamoto real or a phantom summoned up by need and imagination? It's "Brief Encounter" for the New Age.
American writing schools may overdo the injunction always to show and never to tell -- our young writers seem to know how to do little but show us things -- but it's advice that Murakami could have used. An amazing amount of this book is devoted to Hajime's discussions of what Shimamoto means to him, what his wife means to him, what his predicament means to him. It's possible that Murakami is playing changes on a Japanese genre I'm unfamiliar with, or that he's needling Hajime's narcissism in ways too Japanese for me to perceive. And he does have a wonderful way of making the novel's action seem to play out against a background of serenely classical Japanese art. But he also seems determined to baby his imagination. For example, Hajime tells us of his delight in his rapport with Shimamoto. Yet here's a typical exchange:

"You mean we're lovers?"

"You think we're not?"

I catch the echoes of '40s weepies. It's what those echoes ought to be bouncing off that's missing.

If you're unfamiliar with Murakami's work and want to give it a try, start with "A Wild Sheep Chase." A melancholy yet irreverent phantasmagoria about an ad guy, a girl with beautiful ears, a mysterious sheep and Japanese guilt over World War II, it suggests a 21st century cross between "Absalom, Absalom!" and "Mothra," and it's still fresh and moving. My guess is that in this zingless new novel, the writer thinks he's using Hajime's tale to wrestle with what Thomas McGuane once called "the sadness-with-no-name," a forlornness many baby boomers fall prey to and can't shake off.

But his approach -- hunting endlessly for the emotion's metaphysical and historical meanings -- pays off only in Rolling Stone magazine-style banalities. Recalling the end of his '60s college days, Hajime tells us, "Like a drooping flag on a windless day, the gigantic shock waves that had convulsed society for a time were swallowed up by a colorless, mundane workaday world." While the significance of it all piles up and the action drifts, the annoyed reader may start to wonder: Does Murakami really think that no one before his generation ever got scared of middle age, asked what life is all about and did a little screwing around in search of an answer?
Author Philip Weiss
Date February 1, 1999  
Media The New York Observer  
  Another Spiritual Ghost Story From a Fine Japanese Realist

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has built an international following because his stories move so effortlessly between the surface reality of materialistic yuppie life and the horrors of a sensitized imagination. His tools are a flatly realistic prose (influenced by Raymond Carver, whom Mr. Murakami has extensively translated) and what you might call a psychological metaphysics. His first-person narrators are at once reliable and half-crazy. They don’t go in for the talking birds of magic realism and, more important, they never signal you to suspend disbelief.
That’s because the author hasn’t suspended his. No, Mr. Murakami seems genuinely to believe in the existence of what he describes, and when he succeeds, this zone of imagined events becomes more "real" to a reader than the socially approved arrangements from which his narrators depart.

His two most successful novels, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), are in essence spiritual ghost stories set in Tokyo. In each, an aimless male narrator tries to find a lover who has disappeared on him. There are corporatized villains and surprise endings.

Mr. Murakami’s new book, South of the Border, West of the Sun, has similar elements. Hajime is your typical Murakami hero. Married to a passive, unstable woman, he drives a BMW, works out at the gym and listens to Billy Strayhorn. His father-in-law is a deeply corrupt businessman whose practices disturb him. And–as Mr. Murakami himself once did–Hajime manages a hot Tokyo jazz bar.

After the bar is featured in a magazine, Hajime is visited by Shimamoto, a lame woman with whom he’s been obsessed since he last saw her, when they were both 12 years old. Shimamoto reveals nothing about herself. Yet it would seem that she is the kept woman of a wealthy man. She makes a mysterious request, that Hajime accompany her to a mountain river on Japan’s west coast. Hajime lies to his wife and tells her he’s going fishing. At the river, Shimamoto tastes, then scatters ashes she says are the remains of a baby. She and Hajime race back to the airport during a winter storm, and when she suffers a seizure and nearly dies in the rental car, Hajime must resuscitate her.

Looking into her eyes, he glimpses the cold void. Yet he makes plans to leave his wife and two children for her.

This story contains passages that are among Murakami’s finest. The protagonist’s calm recollection of his boyhood search for a girl who had "something special that existed just for me," is haunting and natural. He is still struggling over his betrayal of his first lover, shy Izumi. After Hajime fell helplessly into a torrid sexual relationship with Izumi’s cousin, Izumi discovered it–and it broke her forever. The betrayal also shaped Hajime’s understanding of himself.

"I am a person who can do evil," he says. "I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal."

Just as honest and plain are the descriptions of running a jazz bar. Here Hajime explains why he pays his bartender well: "Most people don’t realize it, but good cocktails demand talent. Anyone can make passable drinks with a little effort.… Take me: I think I can mix up a pretty mean cocktail. I’ve studied and practiced. But there’s no way I can compete with him. I put in exactly the same liquor, shake the shaker for exactly the same amount of time, and guess what–it doesn’t taste as good. I have no idea why.… It’s like art. There’s a line only certain people can cross. So once you find someone with talent, you’d best take good care of them, and never let them go."

At its best, South of the Border, West of the Sun so smoothly shifts the reader from mundane concerns into latent madness as to challenge one’s faith in the material world. Reading the book late one night, I found myself fearful of walking into a dark room.

But I can’t say this book wholly succeeds. At times the author flirts with the method that has made other works of his forgettable: a dreamscape fiction, connected to nothing. And though Mr. Murakami has many a time practiced the disappearing-woman trick on his readers to great effect, in this case he provides too little information about his subject to get you to truly care. Where did Shimamoto get her money? Is she connected to Hajime’s insider-trading father-in-law? Is she even alive?

Hajime tells us far more about himself, his job, his loves, his consciousness. That’s a lot. I wanted more.

Author Ariel Swartley  
Date January 31, 1999  
Media The Boston Globe  
  Love songs of a japanese yuppie everyman

`Until I moved to Tokyo to go to college,'' writes the mild-mannered narrator of ``South of the Border, West of the Sun,'' ``I was convinced everyone in the whole world lived in a single-family home with a garden and a pet, and commuted to work decked out in a suit.'' Hajime, whose name means ``beginning,'' is a Japanese baby-boomer. Born in 1951 (``the first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the twentieth century'') in a paradisical postwar suburb, he has grown up to become owner of a trendy Tokyo jazz club, driver of a BMW, doting father of two little girls. And yet, almost from infancy, this middle-class Adam has suffered the consciousness of original sin. As an only child he was an anomaly both in his family and in his neighborhood, the subject of harsh assumptions and consequent self-doubt. ``In the world I lived in, it was an accepted idea that only children were spoiled by their parents, weak, and self-centered. This was a given -- like the fact that the barometer goes down the higher up you go and the fact that cows give milk.''

Fans of Haruki Murakami's previous novels, which include ``A Wild Sheep Chase'' and ``Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,'' will recognize the social satire masked as self-deprecation, and the deadpan tone which the author -- frequently compared to Thomas Pynchon -- habitually uses to describe both mundane and blatantly surreal events. But ``South of the Border, West of the Sun'' is Murakami's most domestic and perhaps most deeply moving novel. Gone is the peripatetic pace -- Hokkaido to Hawaii and many altered states in between -- and the private-eye swagger of 1988's ``Dance Dance Dance.'' Gone too is the expansive cultural and historical territory covered by 1995's ``The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,'' in which a househusband's search for his runaway wife takes him backward in time to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, through a contemporary labyrinth of politicians and fashion designers, and into an alternate reality mediated by a troubled teenage girl and a pair of clairvoyant sisters whose client list boasts some of Tokyo's most powerful businessmen.

In its place is an almost-simple tale of lost love and, maybe, redemption. Hajime does not live his entire boyhood as an outcast: He is saved by Shimamoto, another only child. Sixth-grade soulmates, they spend long afternoons in her living room listening to Liszt and Nat King Cole on her father's prized new stereo, and talking with a pre-adolescent openness that becomes erotic only in retrospect. Like most such delicately poised relationships, theirs does not survive adolescence. But when she reappears suddenly in his mid-adult life, sitting with full cinematic force alone at the bar of his nightclub (the pianist plays ``Star Crossed Lovers'' in lieu of ``As Time Goes By''), it seems to Hajime that he has been handed an extraordinary chance. By consummating his long-lost love, he will be able to rewrite history, reenter the garden, and become whole in some way that has always eluded him. The problem, however, is twofold: Hajime is at this point happily married, and Shimamoto -- clearly troubled, evidently wealthy, and wholly unpredictable -- refuses to tell him anything of her present life.

For Murakami, as for cyberspace-envisioner William Gibson, the furniture of the mind is more than just a phrase. Besides sharing a generational fondness for rock 'n' roll and hard-boiled heroes, both novelists are adept at turning states of consciousness into a series of literally inhabitable territories. In previous novels, Murakami has taken a dream's cavalier blurring of the boundary between inner space and external reality. A door appears in a blank stretch of hotel corridor, allowing access to the past -- or is it the future? Women seem to morph into one another -- or is it the same woman? Despair becomes a form of house arrest, and characters do double duty, affecting the reader both as individuals and as signifiers of contemporary Japanese culture.

For American readers, the fact that much of that culture is familiar, based on Western imports and global brand names, while the rest seems wholly foreign, only adds to the sense of eerily layered and competing realities. Indeed, the experience is analogous to the one Murakami describes in ``South of the Border, West of the Sun.'' As children, Hajime and Shimamoto have listened to Nat King Cole's album so many times that Hajime can imitate the opening lines of songs. ``Of course,'' he explains, ``we had no idea what the English lyrics meant. To us they were more like a chant.'' And yet the mysterious words ``seemed to express a certain way of looking at life.''

In a switch from Murakami's previous novels, the land that lies ``South of the Border, West of the Sun'' is a frankly imaginary country. As adults, the reconnected lovers confess the disappointment they each encountered growing up, when they had learned enough English to realize that ``South of the Border'' was just a song about Mexico. In the heightened state of perception that exists just before the fall into adolescence, (for Murakami a place of sexual missteps and dark self-knowledge), where the slant of winter sun and every fiber of a girl's blue sweater remain etched in memory, Hajime and Shimamoto each constructed a magical country out of the sound of Cole's words, a place ``beautiful, big, and soft.'' And it is perhaps not innocence per se but the state of unfettered possibility which not-knowing makes possible that Hajime hopes to recover by embracing his past.

Shimamoto proves to be a far more reckless spirit than one usually looks to for completion, but the mystery that surrounds her is just that, something not explained rather than something that defies explanation. (One can imagine Murakami chuckling and quoting Freud's famous remark that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.) It is almost as if the novelist were suiting his structure to his thoroughly conventional protagonist, a man who might well have had three-quarters of a child, if only it were possible, to better fit the demographic profile of his generation. And yet, Murakami's layered meanings remain. Where once his ideas arrived exploded -- rather in the manner of an architectural drawing -- into separate three-dimensional images, now they are compressed into a resonant emblematic whole.

The past that Hajime, a yuppie everyman, yearns to retool is both his own and Japan's postwar idyll, carrying within its imagination-dulling tract homes the seeds of its own destruction. He should be an easy target: effortlessly affluent (his wealthy father-in-law supervises his investments), complacently unfaithful (``I never slept with any one woman more than once or twice. Okay, three times tops. I never felt I was having an affair with a capital A''). But when his daily routine of lap-swimming, child-chauffeuring, and gourmet grocery shopping is threatened, we root for its return.

Ironically, Hajime's true undiscovered country turns out be his wife. Yukiko's plumply serene domesticity masks a private hell he never suspected, which had been encountered and overcome before they met, and a tough-minded but unshakable belief in the earthly paradise that is possible only in the here and now.

Author Mary Hawthorne  
Date February 14, 1999  
Media The New York Times  
  Love hurts

They were just an ordinary lonely boy and an ordinary lonely girl, like all the others,'' Haruki Murakami wrote in his wistful fairy tale ''On Seeing the 100 Percent Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.'' ''But they believed with their whole hearts that somewhere in the world there lived the 100 percent perfect boy and the 100 percent perfect girl for them. Yes, they believed in a miracle. And that miracle actually happened.'' But can the miraculous really be attained so easily? No sooner have they found each other than the doubtful couple decide, by fairy-tale stricture, to put their love to the test. They make a fatal pact to separate, certain that if they really are perfect for each other, their paths will cross again. The years slip by, and it's not until they've reached their 30's that one morning they accidentally meet each other on the street. By then it's too late. With only ''the faintest gleam of their lost memories'' in their hearts, they pass each other by and disappear into the crowd.
Murakami's latest novel, ''South of the Border, West of the Sun,'' also concerns the plight of a pair of lovers. Only this time the couple, even though they are too young to fully realize their fated rightness when they separate, never lose their vivid memories of each other. Their recognition, when they meet years later, is one of joyous disbelief, and in this version of the tale Murakami contemplates the way in which memory not only lingers but gives rise to overwhelming longing for the unreclaimable past (an achievement only somewhat diminished by the limitations of Philip Gabriel's at times jarring translation).

When Hajime and Shimamoto first meet, they are 12 years old. Polio has left Shimamoto lame and her defenses strong -- she is precocious and self-possessed -- but Hajime detects something softer: ''Something very much like a child playing hide-and-seek, hidden deep within her, yet hoping to be found.'' After school, they spend idyllic hours on the sofa drinking tea while listening to Shimamoto's father's records -- Nat (King) Cole, Liszt's piano concertos, the ''Peer Gynt'' Suite. When she momentarily, almost distractedly, grasps his hand one day, his erotic fate, though he doesn't realize it then, is sealed: ''It was merely the small, warm hand of a 12-year-old girl, yet those five fingers and that palm were like a display case crammed full of everything I wanted to know -- and everything I had to know.'' The 10 seconds of their single physical exchange constitute the first stirrings of his sexual awakening.

Their expulsion from paradise comes at the end of the school year. Hajime moves to a nearby town, and the small distance, given their age, is all it takes to sever their connection. He visits Shimamoto a few times, and then, increasingly immersed in his new world, he simply stops. His high school years pass in typical alienated fashion -- with Hajime in the bedroom, the door shut -- until he finds a girlfriend, Izumi, a kind of ''Splendor in the Grass'' Natalie Wood: what he craves, she resists, and they proceed haltingly until Hajime meets the first woman he sleeps with, the first woman to arouse and respond to the intensity of his sexual yearning.


The woman happens to be Izumi's cousin, and they proceed by way of naked instinct. The fact that this ''necessary, natural act, one allowing no room for doubt'' succeeds in destroying another person -- Izumi discovers the betrayal -- is something Hajime could have had no way of anticipating, or any way of averting, and he reaches a cruel realization: that sexual passion has no moral dimension; he feels oddly guiltless. ''It has nothing to do with us,'' he says by way of useless explanation to Izumi. For the first time in his life he wonders, bewildered, who he really is, and for the first time understands that he is defined and motivated by what just about every writer has a particular name for -- Chekhov refers to it as ''irresistible force,'' Goethe as ''elective affinity''; Murakami calls it ''magnetism.''

The event recalls an episode in Murakami's remarkable last (and more ambitious) novel, ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.'' In one of the most succinct and brutally frank letters in literature concerning sexual betrayal, an estranged wife writes to her husband: ''At that time, my body experienced this violent, irrepressible hunger. I could do nothing to resist it. Why such things happen I have no idea. All I can say is that it did happen.'' This inexplicable hunger is the true subject of ''South of the Border, West of the Sun.'' And in the story's spareness and quiet eroticism, it is tempting to make a correlation with some of the celebrated novels of Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, predecessors whose work Murakami has always distanced himself from in favor of Western influences like Fitzgerald and Chandler. But there's nothing decadent or perverse about Murakami's eroticism. Nor is there anything gratuitous or transgressive about it. That he manages, in his sexual explicitness, to make intimacy real -- appealing and unembarrassing, innocent even -- stands him in contrast to the work of many American writers, from A. M. Homes to Bret Easton Ellis, whose treatment of the sexual has been one of calculated offensiveness.

Hajime drifts through his 20's, finally marrying a younger woman he meets by accident on the street. He goes to work for his father-in-law, a shady operator in the construction business who gives him the capital to open his own nightclub, and before long, accoutered in Soprani and Rossetti, he's driving around in a BMW 320 listening to Schubert's ''Winterreise.'' But he can't escape the nagging sense of the inauthenticity, the unreality, of his life, and he begins to long for the purity of his youth, when he was miserable but ''pared down to the essentials'' -- when the only thing he sought was ''the sense of being tossed about by some raging, savage force, in the midst of which lay something absolutely crucial.''

Inevitably, Shimamoto makes an appearance. She and Hajime meet at the club one night and fall into conversation that has both the out-of-kilter feeling of a dream sequence and the clang of actual grown-up talk, which underscores the loss of their innocence. A worldly crassness has marked them both. And Shimamoto's fata morgana quality -- she will reveal nothing about her present circumstances and passes without warning from Hajime's life for months at a time -- suggests ties to a more corrupt and sinister world from which she is unable to escape. When she leaves the club that evening, Hajime is left wondering whether he hasn't just dreamed it all. Only objects remain: an empty glass and lipstick-stained Salems stubbed out in the ashtray. But are they actually proof of anything? The surrealism that has become a hallmark of Murakami's work arises here from the kind of extreme emotional state that can loosen reality from its moorings.

Midway through the novel, the tone begins to shift, taking on a poetic, sensual and increasingly vertiginous cast. The mad love that Hajime succumbs to, and that renders all else in his life meaningless, at last delivers him to a state of purity. His passion -- itself a form of recovered innocence -- is all consuming; he is willing for it to be annihilating.

But, as with the fairy-tale couple who are no longer able to recognize each other after long separation, Hajime and Shimamoto are also incapable of resurrecting the lost perfection of their youth. There is only the empty, endless expanse ahead, from which there is no escape, not for anyone. ''The sad truth is that certain types of things can't go backward,'' Shimamoto tells Hajime. ''Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can't go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that's how it will stay forever.'' This wise and beautiful book is full of hidden truths, but perhaps this is its most essential one, unbearable though it may be to contemplate.