Home > 20th Century, Japanese Literature, Murakami, Haruki, Novel > She moves him in mysterious ways

She moves him in mysterious ways

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

I don’t know where to start, I’m still knocked out by Murakami. Third book in six months about an unforgettable past love coming back in present time and upsetting a comfortable and happy routine. Journey Into the Past. The Art of Losing. South of the Border, West of the Sun. All three breathtaking. All three moving and questioning.

Hajime and Shimamoto-San were close friends when they were children. 12 years old, adolescence is timidly arriving, transforming this deep friendship into a love than cannot yet be mouthed. Desire is about to bloom. Then Shimamoto-San leaves the town. They stop seeing each other. Shimamoto-San moves out, Hajime moves on.

Hajime has a high school romance with Izumi which ends up in Izumi being hurt and Hajime moving to Tokyo. After university, he finds a boring job in a publishing house, spends 10 years there, bored and single. He meets Yukiko during a vacation and it is love at first sight. He is 30 now, it’s time to settle, they happily move in a new home. Two daughters arrive. Yukiko’s father helps Hajime to start his own business. He opens two jazz clubs in Tokyo. He loves his wife. He loves his daughters. He loves his job. He is successful. Life seems perfect.

But Shimamoto-San hides somewhere in his head, despite this happiness, this perfect life. She’s behind a door which stands ajar, as it cannot be shut, the relationship abruptly frozen by absence. One February night, the mysterious Shimamoto-San comes to the Robin’s Nest, one of Hajime’s bars. She is a sort of Japanese Santa Ana coming from the south of the border, a wind that opens wide the half-open door.

What will this throw on their lives? Can they find their love intact? What consequences will this have on Yukiko’s life? What’s the mystery surrounding Shimamoto-San?

Hajime is the narrator of this story, everything is seen through his eyes. It is a first person narrative. The language is perfect in precision and in its reserved tone. Feelings are dissected with clarity, lucidity. There’s a quiet sadness in the fatality of this story.

 Yukiko looks like Naomi in The Art of Losing. She doesn’t deserve to be hurt. She’s facing something bigger than her. Though she’s pretty and loveable, she’s not enough. The relationships in the three novels I mentioned in my introduction have a common point: they stopped unexpectedly and couldn’t come to term. They linger in memories, tainted by ifs. If Shimamoto-San hadn’t moved away? If WWI hadn’t prevented Ludwig to come back to Germany in due time? If Lydia had left Martin when it was still simple to do it? They left a sweet-sour taste of unfinished and left behind an emptiness.

Like after A Journey into the Past, I’m terribly frustrated not to be able to share quotes and show how wonderful Murakami’s prose is. My copy is in French, translated by Corinne Atlan, the usual translator for Murakami. The story takes place in Japan but it could be anywhere else. Without the Japanese names of places and characters, the reader would forget it’s Japan. Hajime listens to jazz and Western classical music. No specific food is eaten. There are no descriptions of houses, furniture or traditional buildings. They go to cafés, drink whisky. At a moment, Hajime says it is Christmas. Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? If they do, it is as sad as pumpkins all over France at the end of October. Murakami published South of the Border, West of the Sun in 1992 and he didn’t live in Japan at that time. Did that exile influence his writing?

There would be much to say on this book but I don’t want to ruin someone’s pleasure by giving away spoilers. However, if anyone has already read it and remembers it well, I’d be glad to discuss it further in the comments. I don’t like to be left alone with such a powerful book.

  1. December 9, 2010 at 4:32 am

    I haven’t read this, but I did enjoy the links you made between the three books. Funny isn’t it how we sometimes read these linked books?

    I wonder how often relationships that end oddly (with no real closure) cause people to experience that ‘unfinished’ what-if feeling that you described?


    • December 9, 2010 at 8:50 am

      My reading this is not really a coincidence. Max recommended this book to me last summer after I abandoned reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. He said he adored South of the Border, West of the Sun. When I read the blurb of this book in my book store I was intrigued to discover how Murakami had dealt with the same theme as Zweig.
      Both books are beautiful. There’s a touching delicacy in the description of feelings. Both authors have a quiet way to describe internal storms, which seem even more powerful with the contrast between the words and the feelings. Like in The Art of Losing, the narrators are men.
      It’s my turn to say I think you’ll like these two short books and I hope you read them some day, so that we can discuss them.

      About you last question. Take a moment. If you wonder if you’ve already experienced this feeling of ‘waste’ or of ‘unfinished’, I’m sure a name pops up in your mind. We all have a what-if relationship in our personal history. Some are more affected than others, it probably depends on the depth of the feelings. There wouldn’t be so many people looking for former acquaintances on social networks if it weren’t so frequent.


  2. December 9, 2010 at 6:48 am

    I loved this book and you capture it very well. It is so melancholic. The mystery of “unfinished” relationships. I bought a Nat King Cole CD after finishing the book but was a bit disappointed. Too cheerful. A Billy Holiday title would have been more fitting. I think being far from Japan did certainly play into this.


    • December 9, 2010 at 8:54 am

      It’s funny I woke up this morning with L.O.V.E. by Nat King Cole in mind.
      I agree with you, Nat King Cole seems too cheerful. More than Billie Holiday, I think of Chet Baker. “Let’s get lost, lost in each other’s arms”.

      In which language did you read this ? Apparently Japanese is particularly difficult to translate, so the translator really matters.


  3. December 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    In German. The title is Gefährliche Geliebte, Dangerous Lover, and, if I am not totally mistaken, they translated it from the English! That’s something I have noticed often with German translations fromthe Japanese, that they do not make the effort and just translate it from English. Bit dubious. After I saw that I bought other Murakami’s in English. Didn’t read them yet. Chet Baker wold be good as well. Or some of the not nervous Miles Davis. Only that is not sung. Waking with a Nat King Cole song in your mind…


    • December 9, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      Now you know you can read Murakami in French too, it’s translated from Japanese to French by Corinne Atlan.

      Why did they change the title in the German edition ? The title is explained in the book, I don’t understand. Plus Dangerous Lover is biased.
      I didn’t know you could read books through 2 layers of translations. It makes sense though for languages which aren’t spoken by many people, like Swedish or Hungarian. It wouldn’t be profitable to translate a book for such a limited number of readers. (Should this be profitable at any cost is another issue). But in German ? Does that mean the German book market is smaller than the French one ? Isn’t German spoken by as many potential book buyers than French ?


      • December 9, 2010 at 7:02 pm

        I think the German market should be bigger but they do translate much more than any other market. I think I saw this done with some Russian authors too, but there it was translated from the French. Titles are often very badly chosen on other markets. They could even have left the English title, Germans would feel very comfortable with that. (I am bilingual, by the way, French or German, it is quite the same.) I just checked my copy to be sure that I ma not remembering something wrong, and yes, indeed, they did translate from the American (it says).


  4. December 9, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I just had a very weird idea, look at what ungodly hour I posted my comment… If you were still asleep maybe my thoughts on Nat King Cole reached you…


    • December 9, 2010 at 3:33 pm

      It’s a sweet idea but alas, I’m not in bed anymore at 6:48 am. I wish I were…
      I like early comments or time difference comments. It’s like a good-morning coming from another part of the world.


  5. December 10, 2010 at 6:22 am

    I’ve yet to read a Murakami still, but I have a Spanish translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the shelf patiently waiting…and waiting..for me. Hope to get to it/him someday soon. On the secondhand translation thing, I understand the main English translation of Lem’s Solaris was based on a French translation of the novel rather than the Polish original. Not sure how much that would distort the original work, so I’ve only seen the two movie versions so far. P.S. Your and Caroline’s discussion about what-ifs in love and romantic music brought back wonderful memories of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love film!


    • December 10, 2010 at 6:48 am

      So is your Spanish translation based on the Japanese version or on the English translation ? I’m afraid The Wind Up Bird Chronicles is not the best way to start with Murakami. I couldn’t finish it, and I’m not the only one.

      I haven’t read Solaris, I’m not a big fan of SF but this one came highly recommended. I’ll probably try to read it one day. Why don’t you read the French version?

      I’ve never seen a translation in French based on another translation. I’ll browse through books when I get home, to check this. It strikes me as not being ‘ethical’. Are we more finicky at translating like we are at dubbing movies?

      re-PS : I loved In the Mood for Love.


      • December 11, 2010 at 12:22 am

        Crónica del pájaro que da cuerda al mundo is translated from the Japanese by a Spanish and Japanese translating duo. I bought it in this version mostly because I’d heard the English version was gutted of about 25-50 pages to please the publisher’s whims (imagine if the idiots did that to all translations). I am anti-dubbing and prefer my translations direct from the source whenever possible! P.S. I’m not really into sci-fi either with a few exceptions, but Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris is more like Einstein than traditional sci-fi. I’d like to read the novel someday, so I probably should look for that French translation.


        • December 11, 2010 at 8:34 am

          I knew the English version of this Murakami was abridged. Max from Pechorin’s Journal found an interesting discussion between Murakami’s translators. The link is in the comments of my post named The Wind-Up Bird Never Sang To Me, if you’re interested. A Japanese/Spanish duo seems perfect for the Spanish version.

          About dubbing, I thought of the quality of French dubbing for films. An American actor will always be dubbed by the same French actor. So the French public identifies an actor with a voice. When you switch from French to the actual voice of the actor, you realise that, most of the time, the dubbed voice looks like the real voice of the actor. An actor with a deep voice will be dubbed by a French actor with a deep voice. It’s done like this for films but also for TV shows. There’s a will to remain close to the original that can be compared with translating faithfully a text.

          re-PS : I understand why Max recommended Solaris to me then when I asked him about SF, since he’s a great fan. Like Slaughterhouse 5, it’s on the SF shelves of bookstores — shelves I never look at — but it is close to ‘general’ literature.


  6. December 10, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I love In the Mood for Love as well. Was actually planning on watching it again.
    I will start checking more often what languages books have been translated from. I have the French translation of Gao Xingjian, it might have been translated from the English as well. It doesn’t seem right, maybe even “not ethical” as you say.


    • December 10, 2010 at 10:07 pm

      I’ve checked books from Russia, Hungary, Norway, China, Czech Republic, Italy, Spain, Poland : all have been translated from the original text into French.
      I have Le livre d’un homme seul by Gao Xingjian. It’s been translated from Chinese.


  7. December 11, 2010 at 8:06 am

    I am really questioning the German translations now. I found another oddity. I wanted to buy Carlos Luis Zafón The Shadow of the Wind, could only find it in German and English, compared both versions and the whole first one or two sentences were missing in the German book. I felt an urge to write to the editor but nagging is so tiring.


    • December 11, 2010 at 8:44 am

      I’ve never noticed that sentences were missing in the English translations of French books I used to put dual languages quotes in my posts.

      I think the French market is moving towards more original texts. My copy of Voyage dans le passé by Zweig is in Livre de Poche edition. Really mainstream. I was surprised to discover the German original text after the translation and I browsed through it, wonderering how some passages were in the original text. It’s getting more and more easy to get dual edition books, especially for Shakespeare and poetry. I wanted Howl in English and I have found a dual edition, which is perfect for me. You can also buy foreign editions on fnac.com or decitre.fr and find some in book stores too. Something changed thanks to the Harry Potter frenzy. People started to read the English version because they couldn’t wait for the translation. Then they realised they could read in English too. Book stores realised they could sell foreign editions too.


  8. December 12, 2010 at 3:13 am

    Just got a copy of Journey into the Past.

    Watched Mademoiselle Chambon last night. Have you seen it?


    • December 12, 2010 at 10:53 am

      I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts about Journey into the Past.
      I haven’t seen Mademoiselle Chambon. Did you like it ?


      • December 12, 2010 at 7:16 pm

        Mademoiselle Chambon–yes and no… It brings up the ‘what if’ question you mentioned. I thought the acting was great and the script wonderfully understated. On the down side, it depends, I think, on whether or not you buy the noble sacrifice part of the tale.


        • December 12, 2010 at 8:57 pm

          That’s intriguing.
          I purchased La Princesse Ligovskoï by Lermontov this afternoon. I wasn’t looking for that in particular. Same theme, I’m curious. (Why they call him Michel instead of Mikhail is something I can’t understand)


  9. December 14, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I’m glad you liked this. It’s my favourite Murakami. It’s so melancholic, and yet so easy to identify with (not a requirement for a novel to be good in the slightest, but resonance has its own power).

    It’s not a situation I’ve ever faced thankfully, but it was hard not to feel for Yukiko who deserves none of this. At the same time, the draw on Hajime is so comprehensible. The whole thing has a bittersweet tragedy to it, a childhood dream intruding back into a settled adult life.

    On another note, Stanislaw Lem is a writer who deserves reading far outside the SF genre. He’s written a lot of excellent novels dealing with some very serious themes. He’s also written some very funny short stories some pure SF (the wonderful Pirx the Pilot tales, very Eastern European) and some more philosophical. The Chain of Chance was one that always stood out to me. Apart from the protagonist being a retired astronaut I’m not sure it even has any SF elements funnily enough. It’s more a mix of detective fiction and philosophy.

    Lem for me can be summed up by one of the Pirx short stories. The Pirx tales are set in our solar system in the future, space travel is commonplace and Pirx is a spaceship pilot. In one tale he recounts how he saw the first evidence that humanity is not alone, when on late shift one night he saw through the viewports a derelict alien spaceship floating past.

    He tries to rouse the crew but they’re all drunk and asleep. The recording equipment is faulty because it hasn’t been maintained properly and there isn’t enough fuel to make an intercept. He sits there, it floats past, and in the morning nobody believes him.

    That’s SF, but it’s not about spaceships or indeed aliens. It’s blackly funny though and the worldview is very former-Soviet.


    • December 14, 2010 at 9:41 pm

      “a childhood dream intruding back into a settled adult life” perfectly captures the essence of this book.
      I agree with you, it’s easy to identify with the characters. I have never been in Yokiko’s position either but I’ve always been convinced it could happen at anytime. What happens is nobody’s fault and I found Yukiko’s speech really moving because she wasn’t angry. She just examined the situation with lucidity.

      I’ll have a look at Lem’s books in a book store, if I can find one. He seems interesting. Thanks for explaining why he’s worth reading.


  10. December 19, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Murakami is one of my favorite authors 🙂 he is my number one favorite author from Japan.

    I have read this book last year. I enjoy reading your review, which is better than mine 😉

    Try finding Sputnik Sweetheart, I love it and the ending makes all the readers curious.

    I still need to read more books by him, but all in good time, I’m not in the hurry.


    • December 19, 2010 at 8:14 am

      Hi, thanks for dropping by. I’ve been on your blog too and I’ve seen you can speak Japanese. Have you read Murakami in the original laguage or in translation ?

      Thanks for the recommandation, I’ll keep in mind Sputnik Sweetheart, I love the title already. (Les amants du Spoutnik, in French)


      • December 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

        I read his books in English 🙂
        I can read Manga in Japanese but not novel because novel has high level of kanji (Japanese characters)…my wish is to be able to read Japanese novel one day.

        There are a lot of good Japanese authors out there, the are the second most authors that I read


        • December 19, 2010 at 10:27 am

          Can you recommend me some Indonesian writers? I don’t think I’ve ever read a book from Indonesia so far.


  11. June 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    I’d forgotten you’d read this. I’m sorry Norwegian Wood proved a disappointment after it.


    • June 30, 2012 at 12:11 am

      You can’t remember everything I read! I’d like to read your thoughts about Norwegian Wood; it would be interesting.


  1. January 1, 2011 at 12:05 am
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  3. June 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm
  4. January 26, 2022 at 2:18 pm

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