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Sayonara, Tsunami Bar

4 minute read

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Susan Barker had to choose Tsunami Bar as the title of her debut novel. Her manuscript was the talk of the 2003 Frankfurt Book Fair, and her publisher, Doubleday, had high hopes for it. But after the Dec. 26 tsunami devastated large parts of Asia, Doubleday felt compelled to select a new name, delay publication for a month, and go through the manuscript, changing scores of references to the eponymous Osaka hostess lounge where much of the action takes place.

Despite that setback, the book has finally appeared, and it proves worth the wait. Sayonara Bar is a cocktail of astringent cultural observations, genres stirred and shaken, subplots served with a twist. At first, it seems to be the story of Mary, an attractive young Englishwoman who, upon finishing her studies in Japanese, finds work as an “economy geisha” in Osaka to earn money for travel. Mary’s adventures in boredom, sexual harassment and exposure to secondary smoke portend a Lost in Translation comedy of manners. But something darker is afoot. Mary is having an affair with the bar owner’s son, a handsome man with connections to the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicate. As the relationship deepens, her travel plans keep receding. “Every one of his embraces squeezes a little more of the wanderlust out of me,” the smitten Mary confesses.

The book’s focus quickly shifts to two other members of the Sayonara circle who tell their entwined stories in alternating chapters. One is Sato, a conscientious corporate drone who is dragged to the lounge by his boss. Sato is distraught over the recent death of his wife and disgusted by the bar and its raucous clientele, whom he sees as symptomatic of Japan’s loss of discipline and economic leadership. What he doesn’t see is the conspiracy that will lead to his own professional disgrace.

The other fixture is Watanabe, the bar’s introverted 19-year-old cook. He lives inside a fantasy in which he has been endowed with the ability to see through walls, intercept thoughts, and even read bodily functions — powers he knows will be needed to save Mary from danger. “Mary impregnates the air with oxytocin, a hormone conducive to trust and uterine contraction,” he observes as she chats with Katya, a sinister colleague. “The 2 parts per 17 million diffusion of this chemosensory signal causes Katya, whose biology serves purely Machiavellian ends, to wrinkle her nose.”

Sayonara Bar’s wealth of convincing detail — hostess lounge décor, menus and flirtation techniques, foreign visa technicalities, drunken-salaryman patter, Yakuza personnel policy — suggests that the author has been there and, horrors, maybe even done that. In fact, Barker, born 26 years ago to an English father and a Chinese-Malay mother, did spend two years working in Osaka, though as an English teacher, not a bar girl. Then she entered the graduate writing program at Manchester University, where she evidently studied a bit too hard. Time doesn’t just pass in Sayonara Bar, it “drips on like a festering stalactite.” As Watanabe cowers outside a gangster’s lair where Mary lies drugged and in peril after one more betrayal, a rat scurries past “with the paws of its offspring dangling from its mouth.” But often she gets it right. In a bar full of devil worshippers, Watanabe muses on their devalued idol: “Reduced to a netherworldly C-lister, nowadays the Devil ekes out a living making guest appearances at black mass and Belgian metal concerts. Enough to make anybody think twice about drinking goat’s blood.”

Baker’s fantastical prose, with its references to gangster and pop culture, recalls contemporary Japanese writers like the Murakamis (Haruki and Ryu), as well as the netherworlds of anime and manga — though her characters are hardly cartoons. Sato, who retains his dignity through crippling setbacks, could have stepped from the delicate pages of Kazuo Ishiguro or Jane Austen. Watanabe, resourceful despite his youthful delusions, would interest David Foster Wallace or Nick Hornby. Only Mary, fluent in Japanese but blind to the signals and intrigues of nearly everyone around her, can’t seem to get a grip. Of course, in that failing she is no worse than all those other Westerners who imagine they know Japan.

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