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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

=Book recently read: South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami=

The novels of Haruki Murakami are like a favorite pair of footie pajamas. Hardly suitable for every occasion, but when the circumstances are right, like when you're cold and tired, or when you've been out all night at a place where people have sucked the life out of you, or when you've  closed the door after kissing your married lover good night and all you want to do now is undress, make a cup of tea, and curl up alone under the covers where no one can find you, lie there in the darkness and  listen to the wind whip and whistle through the tops of the barren trees, those pajamas can't be topped. 

This novel features a typical Murakami hero. An average sort of guy, well-meaning, patient, unassuming, easy-going. He tries to do the right thing in every circumstance and usually does. But even the best we can do at any given moment often has unexpected consequences. Because we are human and our left hand can't always know what our right hand is doing, why it's doing it, and the unintended consequences it will wreak. And that's how it is for Hajime.

He's married to a woman he loves. He's a successful businessman. He has two beloved daughters. But something in his life is missing. Something in him is missing. What that missing element might be…who can put their finger on it? But in Hajime's life it takes the form of two women who he left behind in his youth. He has inadvertently hurt them both. One returns as a cold vengeful ghost. The other, Shimamoto, as a mysterious seductress. Both represent loss, regret, mistakes made, opportunities missed, and, inevitably death.

I puzzled over this passage for a long time. It seems to me to be as excellent description as any of the dizzying moebius strip that is consciousness:

In order to pin down reality as
reality, we need another reality
to relativize the first. Yet that
other reality requires a third
reality to serve as its grounding.
An endless chain is created with-
in our consciousness, and it is
the very maintenance of this
chain that produces the sensation
that we are actually here, that
we ourselves exist. But something
can happen to sever that chain
and we are at a loss. What is real?
Is reality on this side of the break
in the chain? Or over there, on
the other side?  

This passage is also the key to Murakami's work. At least it's the key to understanding what many call the "surrealism" and "magical realism" elements in his work. In Murakami's novels, events, things, even people are bound to appear from out of nowhere and disappear without a trace. The narrator is often left asking himself, "Did that really happen or did I just imagine it?" So it is in "South of the Border, West of the Sun." After two decades, Shimamoto reappears in Hajime's life, seduces him, and then vanishes, possibly to commit suicide. Or was the whole sequence of events a kind of waking dream brewed out of a midlife crisis which threatens to tear apart his marriage, his business, his very life?

Hajime's wife is the third woman he might end up unintentionally destroying. He feels terrible, as bad as anyone can feel about it, but what can you do? This is the beauty of Murakami. He doesn't offer any easy answer. He doesn't offer any answer. When he returns to his wife, Hajime can make no promise that he will remain faithful, that if Shimamoto returns in whatever form she might take the next time around, he won't follow after her once again. He suspects he may well be compelled to do so. There's nothing to be done about it. As human beings, we are simply made that way. Each of us is on his or her own journey. This "truth" is the essence of what Hajime awkwardly tries to convey and what his wife manages to understand: that Hajime hasn't been unfaithful to her so much as faithful to his destiny. Can we love someone enough to allow them to follow their own destiny, even when that destiny doesn't include us? Anything less is nothing more than a compromise between two egos, which, in the long run, will always sell us short.

Love, as Hajime's wife proves, is the acceptance of this bittersweet truth. She will stay with Hajime, making no promises of her own fidelity, knowing she, too, will be powerless to resist following after that missing piece within herself, should it present itself to her, in whatever form it may take. She makes no bones about it. Hajime has torn her heart out. There it is between them, still beating on the kitchen table, along with the knife Hajime used to cut it out of her chest. His bloody prints are all over the weapon. Yet she will pick up her heart, put it back in her chest, stitch herself up, and go on living with and loving him. That's what it is to love another human being. Nothing else, nothing less. It is to be wounded, deeply, mortally, unforgivably by the one we most love and trust in all the world, and to do so voluntarily, without any guarantees that it won't happen again, knowing, in fact, that it probably will happen again. And again. How does anyone love under these conditions? The truth is, almost no one does. What most people call "love" isn't love at all. It's a form of mutual imprisonment. Real love is as rare as a unicorn: just as feckless, just as cruel and just as beautiful.

Existentially, Murakami has just as dark and uncompromising a view of existence. His light touch often disguises the bleakness of his vision. The coda of "South of the Border, West of the Sun" might well be this terse passage, which is repeated twice, once near the beginning and, again, near the end of the novel:

One generation dies, and the
next one takes over. That’s how
it goes. Lots of different ways
to live. And lots of different ways
to die. But in the end that doesn’t
make a bit of difference. All that
remains is a desert. 

That's it. No easy answers. No answers at all. We look into each other's eyes and there is life there, a spark, a definite something, a someone. But the next instant, it's gone. There is nothing there at all. A blind black pupil. A limitless black sea. A cold rain falling. Empty space. A hole. No one. The person we loved is never coming back. We are alone forever. Whatever has form will one day be without form. How do we live under these conditions without going insane?

We go back to that puzzling passage:

"In order to pin down reality as
reality, we need another reality
to relativize the first."

We tell ourselves stories, that's how we manage. We create a reality to explain a reality that has no bottom to it, no foundation. We are falling through space and we imagine a parachute. To imagine a safe landing. To keep from screaming ourselves insane.

It's funny, having said all this, to imagine that the novels of Haruki Murakami could compare to a pair of comfy footie pajamas. But they do. That's  the magic and the charm of his work—a testament to his incredible mastery—and mystery—as a writer.

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