Another Spiritual Ghost Story From a Fine Japanese Realist

South of the Border, West of the Sun , by Haruki Murakami. Alfred A. Knopf, 205 pages, $22.

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has built an international following because his stories move so effortlessly between the surface reality of materialistic yuppie life and the horrors of a sensitized imagination. His tools are a flatly realistic prose (influenced by Raymond Carver, whom Mr. Murakami has extensively translated) and what you might call a psychological metaphysics. His first-person narrators are at once reliable and half-crazy. They don’t go in for the talking birds of magic realism and, more important, they never signal you to suspend disbelief.

That’s because the author hasn’t suspended his. No, Mr. Murakami seems genuinely to believe in the existence of what he describes, and when he succeeds, this zone of imagined events becomes more “real” to a reader than the socially approved arrangements from which his narrators depart.

His two most successful novels, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), are in essence spiritual ghost stories set in Tokyo. In each, an aimless male narrator tries to find a lover who has disappeared on him. There are corporatized villains and surprise endings.

Mr. Murakami’s new book, South of the Border, West of the Sun , has similar elements. Hajime is your typical Murakami hero. Married to a passive, unstable woman, he drives a BMW, works out at the gym and listens to Billy Strayhorn. His father-in-law is a deeply corrupt businessman whose practices disturb him. And–as Mr. Murakami himself once did–Hajime manages a hot Tokyo jazz bar.

After the bar is featured in a magazine, Hajime is visited by Shimamoto, a lame woman with whom he’s been obsessed since he last saw her, when they were both 12 years old. Shimamoto reveals nothing about herself. Yet it would seem that she is the kept woman of a wealthy man. She makes a mysterious request, that Hajime accompany her to a mountain river on Japan’s west coast. Hajime lies to his wife and tells her he’s going fishing. At the river, Shimamoto tastes, then scatters ashes she says are the remains of a baby. She and Hajime race back to the airport during a winter storm, and when she suffers a seizure and nearly dies in the rental car, Hajime must resuscitate her.

Looking into her eyes, he glimpses the cold void. Yet he makes plans to leave his wife and two children for her.

This story contains passages that are among Murakami’s finest. The protagonist’s calm recollection of his boyhood search for a girl who had “something special that existed just for me,” is haunting and natural. He is still struggling over his betrayal of his first lover, shy Izumi. After Hajime fell helplessly into a torrid sexual relationship with Izumi’s cousin, Izumi discovered it–and it broke her forever. The betrayal also shaped Hajime’s understanding of himself.

“I am a person who can do evil,” he says. “I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal.”

Just as honest and plain are the descriptions of running a jazz bar. Here Hajime explains why he pays his bartender well: “Most people don’t realize it, but good cocktails demand talent. Anyone can make passable drinks with a little effort.… Take me: I think I can mix up a pretty mean cocktail. I’ve studied and practiced. But there’s no way I can compete with him. I put in exactly the same liquor, shake the shaker for exactly the same amount of time, and guess what–it doesn’t taste as good. I have no idea why.… It’s like art. There’s a line only certain people can cross. So once you find someone with talent, you’d best take good care of them, and never let them go.”

At its best, South of the Border, West of the Sun so smoothly shifts the reader from mundane concerns into latent madness as to challenge one’s faith in the material world. Reading the book late one night, I found myself fearful of walking into a dark room.

But I can’t say this book wholly succeeds. At times the author flirts with the method that has made other works of his forgettable: a dreamscape fiction, connected to nothing. And though Mr. Murakami has many a time practiced the disappearing-woman trick on his readers to great effect, in this case he provides too little information about his subject to get you to truly care. Where did Shimamoto get her money? Is she connected to Hajime’s insider-trading father-in-law? Is she even alive?

Hajime tells us far more about himself, his job, his loves, his consciousness. That’s a lot. I wanted more.