Murakami's novel: ephemeral identity

January 31, 1999|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"South of the Border, West of the Sun," by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Knopf. 205 pages. $22.

Hajime, a Japanese everyman, recounts his romantic life. "South of the Border, West of the Sun" seems light years from the historical inevitabilities of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," Haruki Murakami's most recent novel, not to mention the intrigues of the unconscious of his masterpiece "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World."

Yet this new mesmerizing example of Murakami's deeply original fiction is equally allegorical. Hajime grows up and marries; he runs two jazz bars and enjoys the material bounty of Japan's post-war economic boom. Then everything collapses. The reader is thrust into Murakami-land where the story is as much about a culture and its ethos as it is about individuals, Hajime, or his women Shimamoto, Izumi and Yukiko.

Hajime is an "only child," for his generation of Japanese a handicap setting him apart from his classmates. Shimamoto is not only another only child, but drags her leg, a legacy of polio. Doubly different, she is forever excluded in Japan from normal feelings, a normal life. Hajime goes on to abandon Shimamoto and to betray his high school girlfriend, Izumi, acts he will forever regret. He discovers "that a person can just by living damage another human being beyond repair."

At college he participates in student demonstrations. Later his father-in-law, a real-estate developer and contractor, tries to lure him into stock manipulations. Living the history of Japan of the last half-century, Hajime is thrust into ethical ambiguities, his fate paralleling the uneasy edifice of Japan's fleeting prosperity.

Murakami mourns that time moves in only one direction, perpetually out of human reach. Despairing, Hajime concludes that "things that have form will all disappear, but certain feelings stay with us forever." Being "an ordinary guy living an ordinary life" has protected him neither from the corruption of Japanese society nor from losing all sense of himself. "I just can't understand who I am anymore," Hajime laments, speaking both for himself and his culture. Murakami once more enlists the metaphor of the shadow. Hajime's shadow goes one way, and he goes another. Identity is as ephemeral as politics.

Yet Murakami's fiction simultaneously flows gracefully onto a universal moral landscape. People cannot help themselves, the author reveals. The fragility of their bruised egos causes them to sacrifice heedlessly what they love most. A lifetime is not long enough to reconcile oneself to the guilt of having betrayed other people, even as Hajime acknowledges that he would do the same thing again.

Reality is forever elusive, and this novel trails loose ends never reconciled by an uncompromising author. Shimamoto returns only to disappear forever. Izumi walks through life in emotional paralysis, a zombie who frightens neighborhood children. The mysteries of another's heart are never revealed, while the death of the soul is always a heartbeat away.

Murakami's characters are overwhelmingly lonely, forever on the verge of annihilation. Salvation beckons through self-invention, continuous self-renewal. But Hajime admits that "until someone came and lightly rested a hand on my shoulder, my thoughts were of the sea."

By the end, Hajime has transcended the saccharine sentimentality of Nat King Cole's ditty, "South of the Border" and the madness of those Siberian farmers who, suddenly drained of purpose, toss aside their plows and head suicidally "west of the sun." This is a harrowing, a disturbing, a hauntingly brilliant tale.

Joan Mellen teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, of which three are about Japan.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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