At 37, Hajime is comfortably married to a woman he loves, the involved father of two daughters, a successful owner of jazz clubs—and he’s falling apart. Twenty years earlier, he betrayed his first girlfriend when he began an affair with her cousin. At the time, he had his excuses: he was driven by a powerful magnetism; what they were doing was necessary, natural, leaving no room for doubt; if he let her get away, he’d regret it for the rest of his life. But now, he’s filled with guilt and terrified by the undeniable fact that he can do evil. And he realises for the first time that when you hurt someone, you hurt yourself more.
Murakami is known for minimalist realism combined with streaks of the outlandish—a kind of magical realism, Japanese-style. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a departure from this, at least superficially. There are no frog-caused earthquakes, no philosophers dispensing wisdom from the bottom of wells. The narrator, Hajime, describes a familiar world. He lives a typical suburban life in post war Japan, except in one important detail: he’s an only child at a time when most families have two or three children. This fact haunts him. He recounts: “The phrase only child stood there, pointing an accusatory finger…Something’s missing, pal, it said.”
Then Shimamoto arrives in the neighbourhood. She walks with a limp, which makes her proud and standoffish and immediately appealing to Hajime, who’s less impressed with conventional loveliness and drawn more to the hidden qualities only he can detect. Because Shimamoto is also an only child, Hajime feels they share something potent and out-of-the-ordinary, something really ‘special’. They spend hours listening to her father’s record collection, talking and not talking.
One day, they discuss their peculiarity. “After a certain length of time has passed,” she tells him, “things harden. Like cement in a bucket. And we can’t go back anymore. The cement that makes you up has set, so the you you are now can’t be anyone else.”
When Hajime moves to a new town, contact between the two ceases, but for Hajime the memory of the friendship is transformed into an ideal of love. . . . .