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Casablanca Blues March 24, 2014

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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Casablanca is one of my favourite movies. I love the movie and I love stuff about the movie — I’ve got several books about it, including the not-very-good official tie-in As Time Goes By from a few years back. I’ve got other movies that I love and see as having thematic or other connections to it, like Pepe le Moko, Algiers, To Have and Have Not. I bought a copy of the original Murray Burnett and Joan Alison play Everybody Comes to Rick’s from the Warner Bros Archive. (Though now you can just download a pdf from Drexel University.)

So when I heard about Casablanca Blues by Tahir Shah I was curious. Shah’s a British writer of Afghan ancestry who moved with his family to Casablanca and wrote a Year in Provence-type nonfiction book about it, and later decided to write a novel in which a modern American obsessed with Casablanca the movie finds himself in the real Casablanca of the 21st century. The description promised adventure, humour, and romance, and of course the contrast between the fake Casablanca and the real.

Turns out that the book shares something important with the movie: it’s a melodrama that you can’t really take seriously, a confection that’s wholly enjoyable but not really any more realistic than the movie. But, like the movie, it sweeps you along. The Bogart secret mcguffin, the spoiled rich girl, the millionaire who decides to fight the corruption in his city, the mysterious villains, the raggamuffin thief with a heart of gold, the fights, chases, all of it is a long way from realism. But if it’s pulp melodrama, at least it’s well written pulp melodrama with a satisfying payoff. The characters may be a little thin, the exotic settings described in less detail than they might be, but I raced through the book and had a fine time doing so.

I think Shah understands something important about Casablanca that Michael Walsh failed to grasp when he wrote As Time Goes By, which served as a prequel and sequel to the movie. Yes, there’s death and sacrifice in Casablanca, and yes, it’s about the evil of the Nazis and the importance of taking sides when things get bad. But it’s heightened, melodramatic, and relatively safe. The Nazis even play nicely, not simply murdering Laszlo when he shows up in a territory run by the Nazi collaborators of Vichy France. Walsh’s decision to involve several of the film’s characters in a dangerous mission to kill a real SS leader, Reinhard Heydrich, just doesn’t work for me. It’s too real. Shah wants to talk about corruption, orientalism, and other things, but he’s learned from Casablanca (the film and the city) that gritty, brutal realism isn’t the only way to talk about them. Casablanca the movie is fun. As Time Goes By is not fun. Casablanca Blues is fun. Didn’t teach me a lot about the real 21st century city, but I can always get Shah’s nonfiction book The Caliph’s House for that, and I probably will.