The Melody of Words: A Review of South of the Border, West of the Sun

The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.

 

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‘“For a while” is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.’ South of the Border, West of the Sun

In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.

Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.

 

Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.

 

The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.

 

That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.

 

Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.

 

But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.

 

And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.

 

Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.

 

South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.

 

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Go Make a Home for Yourself Today

A wise woman once said, ‘Even being alone, it’s better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely,’ and I wouldn’t have discovered her words later in life, wouldn’t have been none the wiser if I hadn’t walked out of my home that day and watched a movie alone, forever igniting my passion for watching films by my lonesome.

On a drizzling day of February 2012, when the lovers strode past me, huddled in each others’ arms, towards the theaters, I had taken my cynical self for a movie, something that I would laugh about in the coming years, thinking how I had specifically used the term—“Dating Myself”—to describe that incident in future dinner-table conversations.

I had been bitter, and chewing the corner of lips, as is my habit and that of the characters that I end up writing about. Cursing every last of these oblivious fools, for they were oblivious to life and her many woes, for they were oblivious to the incumbent sadness of never really belonging anywhere.

Because I had never belonged to anyone, especially not to myself.

After all, even my self was just as temperamental as I was. When I tried to woo her, she had made it abundantly clear that she needed to be courted, loved, adored, and given a sense of belonging before she would let her secrets be known.

And so, when all hope was almost lost, I had taken my self to a date.

I had got myself a bucket of the most cheese-infused popcorn, not to mention the overpriced glass of Coca Cola.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the name of the movie I had watched that day. I am sure it must been something absolutely horrendous. But I do remember that I had decided to “date” myself on Valentine’s Day ‘12, as is the cliche of every stubborn heart in the world.

The results had been horrible—I had cried buckets over some character dying, I had spilled Coke on my new tee shirt, and I had wasted almost half a bucket of those tasteless abominations when I tried to get up from my seat at the end of the movie.

Soaked and poorer by five hundred bucks, I had returned home from the disaster, promising myself that I shall never let myself be tortured in this way.

Suffice to say, I never really kept my word.

As the years passed by, I befriended myself. And in turn, she showed me my loneliness could be turned into something akin to a pleasant solitude. She gave me words, filled me up with characters from books and movies, and strung up the emptiness of my otherwise silent world with music, even if I was quite disinclined towards the new addition.

Inside us is another person, another self that is waiting for you to only ask, just ask, to show themselves. And believe me, even if you drag them through the worst movie dates, the most tasteless of dinners, and even the worst of heartbreaks of your life, they will never abandon you. They will never say goodbye.

I see myself, I see her and I saw the empty unfurnished room inside my soul that had existed before she welcomed me in. It was a greyscale box of nothingness, with no heart and no memory to treasure in the darkest of times.

And together, we had colored it, painted it with a thousand more colors that the spectrum still hides from our eyes. We had furnished it with love, hope, even our sorrows, and our most secret of memories.

Sure, there were heartbreaks after. My self and I found ourselves decorating our home for guests who wouldn’t stay long enough to call themselves family. That they would sometimes leave with a piece of our furniture, stealing our memories, our hopes, perhaps even our belief that we could love again. And sometimes they would be kind, kind enough to leave a piece of themselves for our safekeeping, a memory, a memento of a scent, a voice, or a phantom touch. And she and I, we would caress it, keep it safe, locked inside the most secure corners of our room until they came to claim it again.

But for you to see all of this, you would have to know yourself first.

Know how beautiful, how wonderfully, heartbreakingly priceless you are.

I found that when I had taken myself to see some film in a lovelorn theater.

Perhaps you would find yourself in the midst of words, or perhaps in the unread corner of a storybook, or even in the melody between choruses of a song.

Who knows?

But that is your story to discover.

So find yourself.

And love yourself.

After all, you are your soulmate.

Hold onto yourself when the storms rage, when the sea seduces you to leave out the rest, when the mountains call you to leap forth, when life whispers your last goodbye.

Hold on, because your strong and fragile heart needs you.

Hold on, because that soul is yours to keep, to protect, and to cherish until it is time to depart, together.

Just hold on.

The Girl You Knew

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Sometimes, her memories visit me on lonesome Sundays, when the city around me dims down in silent melancholy and the clouds assemble to paint the sky in white and blue in the sunless wintry afternoons.