Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.
You can never really generalize about an entire nation's literature, but what has always struck me about Japanese books that I have read is their ability to distill themselves down to a portrait characters and a time. Haruki Murakami manages this brilliantly with his book Au Sud de la Frontière, A l'Ouest du Soleil. It is a story of a Japanese single child Hajime, and his love and the love and relationships he forges.
This trait of being a single child is what starts the book, setting both the characters and the theme for what follows. In this, it reminds me of Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which uses as its central theme the idea of the main character's stutter, which creates a cleavage between the rest of the world and himself.
Hajime's birth as an only child he similarly credits with his loneliness, his isolation, and his separation between himself and others. It forms the uniting theme between himself and his childhood friend and later obsession, Shimamato-san, who threatens to destroy all that he has built with his real wife, Yukiko. The relationship between him and Shimamato-san, as to his betrayed childhood girlfriend, haunts him and tantalizingly brushes the boundary between reality and the imaginary with the brilliant flaming flower of Shimamato-san, who is half-vision, half-real.
It puts in theme the emotions of Hajime brilliantly, from his childhood craving for compassion and connection to another person to his adolescent cravings, his solitude and adoration of music, and the isolation and loneliness which stalked his youth. Throughout the book, it has a magnificent mise-en-scène of the places and people and a passion when it describes love and romance.
And it offers a subtle-but-encompassing look at the nature of Japan and Japanese people through the post-war economic boom, showing the life of one of its representatives as he grows through the phases of its history. He develops from outgoing child to politically engaged and militant student, to the graduated and depressed—nigh soulless—corporate drone, to finally giving in to the Japanese rampant capitalism which he once opposed.
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But what about Hajime himself, this only child who forms the beating center of the book, so centered upon himself? Hajime is a man of some sort of magnetic attraction, and I suppose that in a certain sense is a cheat—it's easy to write a store of hopeless love triangles when he has so many women that fling themselves at him. And at times it feels more than a bit vapid in that regard, in why exactly there are so many women who chase him, and Hajime a terribly egoist and selfish man, with his pretensions to depth because he listens to music and makes his way through a few books (although never really engaging with them).
It's hard to see really what draws women to him, but then let us give him the benefit of the doubt since some men really do have this magnetic charisma. But it's hard at times to sympathize with Hajime, especially since he freely admits that he cheated on his wife Yukiko even before he met Shimamato-san again and with inconsequential women with whom he felt no real affection. Perhaps it is a difference in Japanese culture regarding it, but clearly he can feel shame for cheating and does when it comes to Shimamato-san, but Hajime as a man seems contemptuously casual in his relationship with his wife and family.
And of course, his wife did not come alone, and the relationship with her father is one that is a great question. His father-in-law is the root of all of Hijane's success, providing the capital and the business connections that enable Hijane's bars to be built and for the investment which gives them material prosperity—but he is also a figure who in the end, Hijane rejects, but rejects before he returns to Yukiko. At the same time, he is still besotted with Shimamato-san.
Is his father-in-law a representation of the dark side of Japan's economic boom, just as Yukiko represents the golden side of conventional Japanese society of the dying days of the Showa Era? The father-in-law's shadowy and mysterious figure, however, is a man who could almost be left out of the book and still leave it perfectly intact.
If there is a book that Au Sud de la Frontière, à l'Ouest du Soleil reminds me of, it is John Fowle's The Magus—the same main character of profoundly dubious morals when it comes to women, who hurts and pains his partners but is in the end caught in a web of his own making as he must fight between what is right and his fantasy fired with some unknowable spark of attraction, the constantly changing plot that upends what you thought you knew, that plays around with the border between reality and magic, and with its end that leaves you in the dark about the world to come, only with a spark of hope. And it has a similar greatness for capturing the atmosphere of the world surrounding it, to really feel the stark, barren frigid coldness of northern Japan in winter, the warm rainy nights in a jazz bar in Tokyo, strolls through the summery villages of youth, the sensuousness of lovemaking.
Au Sud de la Frontière, à l'Ouest de Soleil puts into light a deeply flawed man and manages to pull off what could easily have degenerated into an emotional jumble of imaginary esoteric wanderings. Instead, it shows an era, the emotions, thoughts, and cravings of an imperfect human, and the rebuilding of relationships between shattered and hurt people who must reforge their lives, either in a stronger way than they once had, or to cave to depression and nihilism.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.