Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hysteria Siberiana: Reviewing “South of the Border, West of the Sun”

Title: South of the Border, West of the Sun
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Phillip Gabriel
Length: 192 pages
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0-09-944857-2

Final Verdict: 3 out of 5. I wanted more from this novel, and wasn’t satisfied with what the author gave me. The summary on the back cover speaks of Hajime’s slow descent into the mysteries of his lover Shimamoto’s life, but in the end, nothing is resolved. South of the Border, West of the Sun is Hajime’s journey toward self-realization. But he didn’t capture my interest. I wanted Shimamoto’s tale—and that was the story I never received. Murakami offers a mere tempting taste of the mystery of her life, enough to leave me more famished than when I began.


Hajime is an only child, and the distinction renders him an outcast. He meets Shimamoto, another only child, and the two become close friends. Hajime carries the memory of their friendship throughout his adolescence and into adulthood, long after he has moved away from his old neighbourhood, and laid his childhood to rest.

He meets Shimamoto twenty-five years later, a successful man: happily married, a father of two girls, owner of a thriving chain of bars. Shimamoto too wears the trappings of wealth and success: an exquisite wardrobe, private cars, more time than she can fill. But her change is greater than that of status: a string of dark secrets lurks behind her money and her silences, secrets into which Hajime finds himself helplessly drawn, as, with every moment of their reunion, he finds himself falling in love.


I understand that I, as a reader, could ultimately only learn so much about Shimamoto, Hajime’s childhood friend and lover in his middle age. She is defined by her mystery, and South of the Border, West of the Sun is not her story—it is Hajime’s, and his search for a land “west of the sun”.

“West of the sun” is a place of fulfillment, that Hajime and Shimamoto discuss at one point following their reunion. Shimamoto tells Hajime of an illness called ‘hysteria Siberiana’: it is when Siberian farmers, driven insane by the monotony of the horizon, go in desperate search of a land “west of the sun”—something to break the monotony, something fill their emptiness. They never find their land, and die soon afterward.

I think Hajime had a glimpse of his west in Shimamoto—a mirage of his salvation from an unfulfilling life. Shimamoto is the catalyst of Hajime’s epiphany, and the character transformation readers may assume Hajime starts toward at the novel’s end. It therefore makes sense that he never learns Shimamoto’s life story. But I don’t appreciate that he (and we, the readers!) never do. The mystery of Shimamoto’s life held my interest, and kept me glued to the book in the hope of learning more about her. And so to be left hanging, with Hajime’s life tending toward resolution and Shimamoto still as much of a mystery as she was when she first reappeared, is frustrating.

The story certainly had its high points. I finished it quickly and eagerly, as it is full of little incidents, all snapshots into Hajime’s rise to success. And even though South of the Border is about an affair—one plot that usually leaves me feeling sick—I actually liked how Murakami handled it.

Because I had followed Hajime from his youth—from him as an only child to a man who is outwardly crowned in triumph and inwardly broken—and understood his motives after some fashion, his affair didn’t trigger me as forcibly as it might have done. I was not flung into Hajime’s life, told to sympathize with his misery and hate his wife as a matter of course, and finally approve joyously of his affair. Murakami presents the affair not as something righteous and that I should naturally agree with, but as something that simply happened. It has consequences, and the wife (who is not cast as a Horrible Harpy for its sake; thank you, Murakami!) takes it without undue drama. It is this happy absence of melodrama that I enjoyed most about this book.

South of the Border drifts to its conclusion. Nothing is particularly resolved. The ending does not inspire me to rush out and read another novel by Murakami, but a friend has already sold me on another book of his, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And so until I read Chronicle and make up my mind entirely about this author, I won’t let him slip from my “to be read” list.


  1. I've heard of this Japanese author but never read any of his works. His The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seems to be pretty popular. This book has a fantastic premise, but I hate it when authors don't bother resolving any central stories, so I don't think I'll put it high on my list. I'm looking forward to your review of the other book, though!

  2. I love Murakami, but this isn't my favorite book by him. I really liked A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore.

    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was my first Murakami. I found it a very special book, very different from what I had read before. I hope you'll enjoy it!