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

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before