The soul of Japanese wit

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, 16.99

SOMETIMES it takes a short story collection to really get the measure of an author's preoccupations. Haruki Murakami, Japan's best-known writer, is largely preoccupied with all things weird.

His characters are lonely, inquisitive types who, instead of drawing the curtains in a storm, visit the zoo to see how exotic animals respond to the elements.

In one of his stories, a character disappears on a visit to relatives who live two floors down in their Tokyo condo, only to emerge 20 days later remembering nothing.

Others have tragic yet wondrous afflictions, like the protagonist of 'A Poor Aunt Story', who is forced to live with the ghost of someone's poor aunt upon his back.

Mainly known in Britain for his novels, in particular The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, the 25 stories selected here span 25 years of Murakami's work. Coincidence courses through the veins of his stories, many of which are easily as good as his novels, but there are no neat endings. Often the words just run out, the characters surely continuing to live out their strange existences beyond the printed page.

Murakami fans will recognise the writer's leitmotivs, but in his short stories they are sharpened. In fact the mysteriousness of his created worlds, which can become frustratingly cryptic in his novels - in particular his last, Kafka On The Shore - retain their charm precisely because of their brevity.

Here is how he opens one of the best stories in the collection, 'Chance Traveller'. "The 'I' here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story." In another writer's hands this could easily seem too smug and self-referential. With Murakami, though, it is disarming, amusing and reveals his lightness of touch.

What follows is a wonderful story of how Murakami once went to a jazz club in Massachusetts - he famously sold the jazz bar he ran with his wife to become a full-time writer - to see one of his favourite pianists. Disappointed almost to the point of panic at his performance, Murakami found himself willing the pianist to play two obscure jazz pieces, knowing there was no way he would.

In fact, the pianist finished with both pieces, one following the other, perfectly performed. That is the end of the tale and it has the typical Murakami effect of making you delight in all the trivial but meaningful peculiarities that make up life.