An Enchanting Futile Quest

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HILARY ROXESomewhere in postwar suburban Tokyo, two 12-year-old outcasts--Hajime, hobbled by a lack of friends and confidence, and Shimamoto, literally crippled with a bad leg--listen to Nat King Cole croon about a place south of the border. They don't understand the words and don't know the distant locale, but they can tell their lives are missing something. Years later Hajime recalls: We had no idea then what the English lyrics meant. To us they were more like a chant. But ... the lyrics seemed to express a certain way of looking at life. In Haruki Murakami's latest novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun (Knopf; 213 pages), that musical interlude dooms Hajime to a life of uneasy discontent.Murakami, born four years after the end of World War II, has emerged as a kind of spokesman for a generation of restless young Japanese. His seven translated novels, which include A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, have earned him comparisons with authors ranging from Thomas Pynchon to Raymond Carver. In other words, he defies categorization. Murakami's leading men tend to be musing bourgeois Everymen--like the one Hajime becomes in South of the Border--who voice the sense of individual isolation that accompanied Japan's economic boom. But some quirky traits--like Hajime's aesthetic appreciation of a well-made drink or his early fixation on being an only child--make these familiar characters worth following.

Murakami slows his usual frenetic pace to settle into the Armani-clad existence of Hajime's adulthood. Hajime becomes a man who measures his life in women: Shimamoto, the prepubescent passion; the first girlfriend; the ferocious sexual liaison; the nameless fillers of his 20s; his wife. These are the women he loves, destroys, settles on. But the book is not about women; Murakami merely structures it around them. After Shimamoto moves away at age 12, Hajime measures every subsequent woman against her memory. Such is the competition for Izumi, his high-school girlfriend, whose good-hearted simplicity leaves her shattered when Hajime absconds to her cousin's bed. At this point he realizes, with melodramatic overstatement, that ultimately, I am a person who can do evil. By the time Hajime enters his 30s, he has unloaded some of this anguish and moved into the intimate realm of Tokyo jazz and quiet boredom. Eventually he marries, opening a jazz club with the financial backing of his father-in-law and yielding to the comforts of the middle class. And then, unannounced, Shimamoto appears on his barstool.

As the club's pianist plays Duke Ellington, their adolescent flame is rekindled. Refusing to discuss her past and dropping only vague, unsatisfactory clues about her present, Shimamoto returns to the bar erratically. Though Hajime obsesses over her inscrutable behavior, domesticity requires him to pick up a daughter from nursery school, handle his stock portfolio and sleep on the couch after his wife senses something is wrong.

Loose ends are left untied. Hajime remains anxious. Shimamoto stays evasive. Toward the end of the novel, she describes a strange illness that makes a person walk continuously west, in pursuit of the sun. What is there, west of the sun? Hajime asks. Answers Shimamoto: I don't know. Maybe nothing. Or maybe something. They never know what they're looking for and certainly never find it, but Murakami's characters are interesting enough to make their search seem worthwhile.