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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