South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami, Seattle Times

Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, February 28, 1999

A Japanese ‘Casablanca’

By Mark Lindquist
Special To The Seattle Times

This is a Japanese novel that feels as American as the movie “Casablanca,” which it brings to mind in both tone and plot. Hajime, the narrator, owns a jazz bar in Tokyo. He is in his mid-30s, has a wife, two children, and a BMW. Life is good, except he has moments where he feels he is “living someone else’s life, not my own.”

Hajime is haunted by the memory of Shimamoto, a precocious girl he had an intense friendship with when they were 12 years old. They lost track of each other after Hajime’s parents moved and he went to a different junior high school. Twenty-five years later, Shimamoto reappears in Hajime’s life, much like Ingrid Bergman’s appearance at Rick’s. The jazz trio strikes up Duke Ellington’s “Star-Crossed Lovers,” which does for Hijime what “As Time Goes By” did for Humphrey Bogart’s character. This masterfully composed short novel is about what happens when these two reconnect. You can read it in one sitting, and then you will want to read it again.

Murakami has translated several American authors into Japanese, including Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and comparisons to both are called for. Murakami shows the control and compassion of Carver along with the lyricism of Fitzgerald. The only weakness here is the occasionally wooden dialogue, which may be a translation problem.

Possibly because Murakami is Japanese and in his 40s, he gets away with something his younger American contemporaries have been criticized for: bridging the gap between literature and popular fiction. At times this book reads like a screenplay, but with a remarkably smart and moving voice-over.

This is Murakami’s fifth novel to be translated into English and his popularity here is on the rise. If you are not already a reader of his, this is a good place to start.