Books: Over the rainbow

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami Harvill, pounds 9.99, 192pp: Aamer Hussein finds a fairy-tale at the end of a Japanese dream

IF WE are looking for something, writes Ama Ata Aidoo in a recent story, we may as well start from where we know best - if we don't find it right there, we can feel free to roam the world in search of it. Hard to imagine two more contrasting writers than the Ghanaian feminist and Japan's sophisticated cosmopolitan, Haruki Murakami: but the title of the latter's latest novel in translation reflects the former's parable. The places we dream of reaching are defined by the places in which we find ourselves.

To Hajime (the novel's "I"), and his childhood companion Shimamoto, growing up in a subtly-evoked, ill-at-ease postwar Japan, the title of Nat King Cole's song has an ineffable appeal - redolent of quest tales and places over the rainbow. By the time the narrator discovers that it only alludes to Mexico, it has already come to symbolise his search for the perfect love. Characteristically, Murakami shows how the tropes of popular songs, particularly those borrowed from foreign countries, have replaced myth and fairy-tale in our imagination. More ominously, "West of the Sun" alludes to a Siberian mental affliction.

Separated from Shimamoto by a move, he transfers his affections to the mild-mannered Izumi, but fails to seduce her. He betrays her with a more obliging cousin, learning, to his terror, how it is possible to hurt the ones that love us most. Such lessons, as the novel proceeds to show us, are learnt but hardly put into practice. They remain, half-remembered, to torment us with guilt, and with the fear of our own freedom to make self-serving choices.

Married at 30 to the unassuming Yukiko, a father, proprietor of a couple of modish jazz bars, Hajime has settled into pleasant mediocrity - or so he thinks. Then Shimamoto re-enters his life. She appears only to disappear; leads him on strange journeys (the disposal of a dead child's ashes) to haunted, beautiful places. Eventually they consummate their relationship in a sequence of chilling intensity. Then she disappears.

Fairy-tale is never far below the surface of Murakami's suave detachment. As a child, Shimamoto is set apart by her bad leg (which, as a woman, she has had repaired); she is referred to by her surname; she appears, and disappears like the fox spirits of Japanese legend. Likewise, the perennial struggle of legend between the good Penelope who waits while the Circes and Calypsos cast their spells on travellers is mirrored in Hajime's conflicts.

Shorn of its zanier elements of mystery and chase - which have made foreign critics see Murakami as the most Westernised of Japanese writers, an Asian Paul Auster - this simple prose acquires a luminosity which raises it to the height of poetry. After a long, dark night of the soul in which he realises that today's Penelopes require a period of adjustment to a marital absence, Hajime looks at the sky, prepares to face a new day with no certainties. Sitting at the kitchen table while he waits for the hand on his shoulder which will supply a tentative answer to his life, he reflects on the "rain softly falling on a vast sea, with no one there to see it".

Aamer's Hussein's collection of stories "This Other Salt" is published by Saqi Books

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style