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After reading Norwegian Wood and wading through the lovely waters of South of the Border, West of the Sun, I launched into my third foray into the delicate, detailed, evocative world of Haruki Murakami. I chose Sputnik Sweetheart randomly, drawn by the title, and whilst I've since heard it criticised by Murakami fans as failing to quite live up to their expectations, for me it rose above them, and became the first Murakami I really fell in love with.
Sputnik Sweetheart is the story of Sumire, compulsive writer decked in a man's oversize herringbone jacket and stomping across and through the life of her closest friend, K. K also happens to be in love with Sumire, but it's not until she falls spectacularly for Miu, a woman 17 years her senior, that Sumire even understands the idea of sexual longing. For a while Sumire debates her burgeoning love with K while he dissipates his own through affectionless affairs until a strange 2am phone call from a Greek island turns everything upside down.
Straight away it is evident that Sputnik Sweetheart will carry what I've come to see as the hallmarks of Murakami's seemingly effortless writing. The language is economical, the plot simple and spare, the emotions stark and very human. The characters are muddled and riddled with all the likeable, loveable, irritating, exasperating quirks and foibles of being alive, and the themes are natural and universal. Love, desire, modern living; all these are gentle wound and twisted together and presented in a way so straightforward and matter-of-fact, and yet so lyrical, that the breathy voice of the first person narrator (another hallmark) almost seems to be in your ear. All hail, then, to translator Philip Gabriel for what I can only assume is a very accurate and deft translation. Murakami himself is a translator of English novels into Japanese, so one can only assume that he is as satisfied with the results as we must be.
Sumire is a difficult character, yet a sympathetic one. Surprised by the intensity of her feelings as much as by the fact that they happen to be for another woman, confused by the apparent randomness of sexual desire and romantic longing, and overwhelmed first by the compulsive need to write and then by the desertion of the compulsion when she is too wrapped up in her emotional renaissance to be able to commit a word to paper, she is full of questions and contradictions. Since she is approached through the narration of K, it's bound to be a sympathetic portrayal, but also a frustrated one. K is at first a rather cold and informative narrator, but later his character surfaces and he's almost maddeningly insightful and engaging. I found myself wanting to yank him out of the page and shake his hand. Miu is the most remote, accessed as she is through K's and Sumire's second and third hand perspectives, a mysterious, closed woman (shades of South of the Border's Shimamoto). But she balances out the trio nicely, lending a distant edge that offsets the deep emotional connection between the two best friends.
In terms of story, there is not really a lot to say. Some things happen, sometimes there is a wealth of activity, but much of the time this is just a slow exploration of the duality of existence. Is it possible to separate the halves of ourselves? Can you separate me the person from the other me who holds the key to love and attraction? Can you separate dreams from reality? Where is the door between this world and that one? And yet we're not talking about philosophical navel-gazing. This is all presented in a vibrant manner, tied in to life and jobs and reality. Sumire works part-time jobs so she can fund her novel-writing. K is a teacher, and a confused one at that (perhaps it's because he's presented so realistically as a primary school teacher that I was so happy to like him!). Miu runs a business. There are a wealth of pop culture references, Lotte Lenya in From Russia With Love, the Internet, the music they listen to and books they read, and yet Murakami is careful to keep an element of timelessness by excising the date (a diary entry is marked August 19**) and not rooting it to a particular place by describing the Greek island in detail and yet never revealing the name.
What makes Murakami so breathtakingly readable to my mind, however, is his economy. His books are short, this is barely more than 200 pages, and they are like devastating little slices of life, clarity and almost magical musing. I'd explain the title, but it's explained early on in the book, and then developed throughout, and it would give away too much. Better to know not much more than I've already told you, really.
And so I've found myself another one to cherish. And this time I've moved past awed admiration to real love, and I'm glad of it.
first published in this country in 2001
Haruki Murakami's latest novel to be translated into English (by the casual yet detailed and vivid Philip Gabriel) 'Sputnik Sweetheart', has been a novel I've been anticipating as most of his other works are brilliant. Even though all Murakami stories have a similar mysterious thread and are enjoyable to read, this book however left me with an average and sussed grey taste in my mouth. This is Murakami's third sole love story, and the unfortunate thing is, if you've read either or both of them (the mega-selling 'Norwegian Wood' and 'South Of The Border, West Of The Sun'), then you'll find this a bit hack and formulaic. It's better than 'South Of The Border...', but if you just want to read Murakami in his finest love mode, 'Norwegian Wood' is all you need to read. 'Sputnik Sweetheart 'is 'just another love story - with a stereotypical twist' by H.M. The rest of Murakami's works however are generally much more better personally, as he does best when he compresses the love element to a minimum and injects a huge amount of surrealness and truly weird and sometimes comic oddballness. Most evident in works like 'A Wild Sheep Chase' and 'The Elephant Vanishes' short stories collection. As always, Murakami loves metaphors and this book is no exception. The central metaphor being in this opinion title pertaining to the three central characters who pass each other as in orbit, but never to meet again. Lonely metal pieces wandering around in space. The title of the book also gives a clue since there were atleast 2 Sputnik satellites (the first ever man-made) made by the Soviet Union that were launched into space. 'Sputnik Sweetheart' is also a little-used nickname towards a character too, it's there mainly for co-incidental value. Though it doesn't matter, as always Harvill releases of Murakami books always have attr
active and simplistic signature covers which should catch your eye in any bookshop. At around 230 pages long (16 chapters) it's not a book that takes that long to devour, and this is a shame for this particular story as when things start getting pretty interesting it just melds into a brick wall. The synopsis basically is that Sumire (named after a Mozart piece - Murakami loves to inject his little musical references around) is a young scruffy looking girl who's an aspiring writer. She's got her fair share of problems and tragedies, with the most evident being that she can't seem to get a grip on her emotions (the key one being sexual) and also finds it hard to write. Sumire only begins to find the key to true happiness in her 'Sputnik Sweetheart', the 17-year older glamarous woman she meets one day, referred to as Miu with an interesting surreal tragedy of her own (which also contributes to her giving up playing the piano - like a character in 'Norwegian Wood'!) that's revealed near the end of the book - and so a relationship between the women occurs as they work and travel together. But unfortunately Sumire's higher lesbian intentions are curtailed by the unwillingly icy Miu. Add to this though that the almost central male protagonist (simply known as K.) is a sleep-arounder primary school teacher who fancies Sumire, but she only considers him a friend - this triangle of isolation plays havoc with them all. The triangle gets somewhat more intimate with the eery dissapearance (like in 'Norwegian Wood'!) of Sumire which unites Miu and K. in a search for her. The clues that add up reveal startling visions and reveal more and more about all the characters and the overall weave of the human emotion condition itself - in entertaining escapist metaphors of course. The ending is an ambiguous one and I'll leave it at that. I won't spoil it, but you can make of what
you will. I just thought it was a bit silly personally. It seemed like Murakami got bored writing half way and just decided to end it after a bit. Not a bad book, I'd say maybe I'd have enjoyed it more if I didn't read his other books, especially the love stories, but still I think it's a bit lacklustre and average. Murakami's love-writing attained a peak with 'Norwegian Wood', and I don't think he can top that (maybe) and shouldn't try, whereas his more weirder stuff just got better and better the more he did. I hope he still does that in the future, if he can still do that, as that is his trademark niche. Overall though, Murakami is incapable of writing poorly, I bet he can even fill in forms that can make bestsellers, but this is a decidely lacklustre average twisted love story by a man who can easily do so much better and has. Read it if you want, but if you've read 'Norwegian Wood' maybe don't bother, and if you haven't, read that instead. And if possible read his other works if you haven't already too.
K, a primary school teacher, is in love with Sumire. But Sumire is in love with an older woman: Miu. Frustrated, K has an uneasy affair with the mother of one of his pupils. Then he receives a call from Miu who asks him to meet her. It seems that something very strange has happened to Sumire.