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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

South of the Border,
West of the Sun

Murakami Haruki

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To purchase South of the Border, West of the Sun

Title: South of the Border, West of the Sun
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: South of the Border, West of the Sun - US
South of the Border, West of the Sun - UK
South of the Border, West of the Sun - Canada
South of the Border, West of the Sun - India
Au sud de la frontière, à l'ouest du soleil - France
Südlich der Grenze, westlich der Sonne - Deutschland
A sud del confine, a ovest del sole - Italia
Al sur de la frontera, al oeste del Sol - España
  • Japanese title: 国境の南、太陽の西
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : thoughtful and nostalgic Japanese midlife crisis novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 31/1/1999 Ariel Swartley
Entertainment Weekly B+ 5/3/1999 Margot Mifflin
London Rev. of Books . 30/9/1999 Lorna Sage
The LA Times B+ 21/2/1999 Janice P. Nimura
New Statesman A- 15/11/1999 Scott Reyburn
New York . 1/3/1999 Alexandra Lange
The New Yorker . 8/3/1999 .
The NY Observer B+ 1/2/1999 Philip Weiss
The NY Times A- 17/2/1999 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. A 14/2/1999 Mary Hawthorne
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/1999 Paul Maliszewski
Salon C 24/2/1999 Ray Sawhill
TLS A 23/7/1999 Phil Baker
The Washington Post C 14/2/1999 Elizabeth Ward
World Lit. Today B+ Summer/1999 Erik R. Lofgren

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some love his approach, others think it does not work at all here. Some think the story is touching, others that is just plain sappy.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Murakami's most domestic and perhaps most deeply moving novel." - Ariel Swartley, Boston Globe

  • "Although Murakami's writing -- or possibly the translation -- is a bit stiff in spots, this is an escapist urban drama in which marital fidelity eventually wins out over romantic passion and, magically, doesn't seem like a compromise in the least." - Margot Mifflin, Entertainment Weekly

  • "This is less a story of transcendent passion than a rather bleak look at the fear of disappointment that inhibits most human interaction. Redemption, in Murakami's hands, is a matter of recognizing the role you have played in disappointing others, instead of dwelling on the injustice of your own disappointment. Murakami's matter-of-fact narrator delivers chilling insights on modern mores. Fans of his more elaborate efforts, though, may hope this brief sketch is just an interlude between acts." - Janice P. Nimura, The LA Times

  • "Background exposition and description are pared down and characters are animated in a single image. (...) Murakami writes with authority about what, for other less gifted novelists, is the crushing ordinariness of late-20th-century life." - Scott Reyburn, New Statesman

  • "(A) charming tale of childhood love lost. (...) 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"." - Alexandra Lange, New York

  • "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. (...) But I can't say this book wholly succeeds." - Philip Weiss, The New York Observer

  • "Mr. Murakami's narrative style is as spare and unadorned as a traditional Japanese room, so seemingly empty that it needs to be furnished with the mind." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "Parts of Hajime's story might read like another mid-life crisis tale, particularly to American readers, but Murakami evades all of the pitfalls of the form, not allowing Hajime to conveniently escape into fantasy or to ignore his wife at home." - Paul Maliszewski, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Zingless." - Ray Sawhill, Salon

  • "South of the Border, West of the Sun constantly risks sentimentality, kitsch and excess. If it triumphantly survives them, it is perhaps because those things are innately part of relationships, and also because its aestheticization and stylization of emotion are akin to what Noel Coward famously described as the strange potency of cheap music. (...) South of the Border, West of the Sun is impressively written and structured, with a deft use of repeated motifs." - Phil Baker, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(S)urface is all, and it's not nearly enough. Obsession, nostalgia, passion, possession: All the dark forces of the mind are here, right enough, but they have about as much substance as the cheap perfumes suggested by that tawdry row of nouns." - Elizabeth Ward, The Washington Post

  • "South of the Border, West of the Sun is different from what we have come to expect of Murakami: less surreal and complex, more introspective, less comic, and closer to our lives, perhaps. Some, bothered by the thinness of the plot, will undoubtedly claim that this is not vintage Murakami. That notwithstanding, the novel is an enjoyable, provocative read." - Erik R. Lofgren, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       South of the Border, West of the Sun is an odd echo of Murakami's Norwegian Wood (see our review), written five years earlier. In both the narrator is 37 (though in Norwegian Wood the focus is on the narrator's university years, while in South of the Border the crisis is in the present). In both music serves as a significant backdrop -- most notably, among the many tunes, the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" in the eponymous novel, and Nat King Cole's "South of the Border" and "Star-Crossed Lovers" in the other. Women disappear from each narrator's life, and much is left unspoken and unexplained. And there are strong autobiographical elements in both -- like the narrator of this novel Murakami also ran a jazz bar, for example.
       South of the Border is a novel about a midlife crisis. Hajime, the narrator is a single child, born in 1951 when there were few single children in Japan. He has a close childhood friend, Shimamoto, a girl with a partially lame leg who is also a single child. Young love does not quite blossom and they grow apart once they begin attending different junior high schools, but the connection between the two was obviously a strong one. She remains on his mind long after.
       In high school Hajime has a girlfriend, Izumi; he hurts her deeply by having a wild, purely sexual affair with her cousin. He goes to college, gets a boring job, and finally gets married when he is thirty, to Yukiko. Her father offers him the chance to open his own business, and he takes it, opening first one and then a second jazz bar. It turns out that this something that he is good at, and that satisfies him.
       Hajime and his wife have two daughters, and lead a fairly happy existence. But Hajime isn't completely satisfied. For one his father-in-law has vaguely drawn him into shady businesses and then insider trading. And then there is the lingering memory of Shimamoto.
       Hajime never really got her out of his mind, and he still turns (and occasionally runs after) every lame woman he encounters. Once he thought he saw her in the street and followed her, leading to a bizarre confrontation -- an event that is never completely understood by him.
       A magazine article about the successful jazz-bar owner leads a number of his old friends to get in touch with him again. One tells him about seeing Izumi, whose life has clearly not gone very well. And then, suddenly, Shimamoto appears in his bar.
       Even then her presence is vague and unclear. She reveals little about her current situation, or what has happened to her since her youth. She fades from sight again, and reappears. Hajime is still drawn to her, and twice he goes on trips with her, putting his marriage in jeopardy. He is willing to give it all up for Shimamoto, but she has other sacrifices in mind.
       Love is lost, time can not be regained. The past is done with, even if it haunts us. Eventually the midlife crisis is resolved: Hajime knows what he has to do.
       When he was young the mysterious promise of what is "South of the Border" fascinated him. Eventually he learnt it meant nothing more than Mexico. "West of the Sun" is more elusive -- Shimamoto gives the example of hysteria siberiana, an illness affecting Siberian farmers overwhelmed by the distance in and the plains of Siberia, heading off "like someone possessed" for a land west of the sun. Hajime conquers the urge and the illusion, staying in place.
       A melancholy, subtle, simple and elusive story, South of the Border is not entirely successful. There is, perhaps, too little to it. The story moves forward rapidly, with only a few significant encounters and events. Murakami could have fleshed it out more. Nevertheless, it is a good, quick, and ultimately haunting read.

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South of the Border, West of the Sun: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review
  • David Mitchell's Murakamiesque Ghostwritten

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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