Tuesday 22 January 2013

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of "Norwegian Wood" and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves. 

A college student, identified only as "K," falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments-until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, "K" is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.

Goodreads Description

This is another book it is impossible to review without giving a spoiler warning. 

If you like unambiguous storylines and endings that tie-up don't read this book. This is a short book easily read, but much harder to grasp. I found myself thinking about it and wondering what happened to Sumire and Miu long after I put the book back on the shelf. For there are at least two mysteries - Sumire's disappearance and what was it Miu saw on the Ferris wheel and neither are fully explained. 

The book starts as a love triangle - K in unrequited love with Sumire, Sumire in love with Miu, whose feelings are at this stage unclear. But this is not a romance book or a book about relationships. Instead it is a book about how alone human beings are: I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.  But even the sputnik image is ambiguous. Because it's not actually true: satellites pass each other regularly on their different orbits and I can't believe Murakami doesn't know this. If that is case, what does it mean for the mysteries in the book? 

Just as Sumire, transformed by Miu, appears to be slipping away from K into her new life, the book shifts. Miu contacts K and asks him to come to the Greek Island where she and Sumire have been holidaying. Sumire has vanished and Miu needs K's help. He discovers a computer floppy disk and on it two documents that Sumire has written. These take us towards a metaphysical answer to the mystery. An answer of parallel worlds, of Miu split between the two - in one world sexual and in the other not, and Sumire seeking the world in which the woman she loves can respond to her. The characters do not even know themselves: I have this strange feeling that I'm not myself anymore. It's hard to put into words, but I guess it's like I was fast asleep, and someone came, disassembled me, and hurriedly put me back together again. That sort of feeling. 

Sputnik Sweetheart is also metafiction. Sumire is an aspiring writer, but stops being able to write when she falls in love. And so the theme of the dissembled person - the two Mius, one feeling and the other not - is very much about the writer's condition. The writer is involved in the world and at the same time detached. The Sumire at the beginning of the book is never satisfied by her work, it is clearly good but it doesn't breathe. K tells her about the ancient gates of China, which contained the bones of fallen warriors and the blood of newly sacrificed dogs. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive.... Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn't make it a living breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.  Of course the image of sacrificed dogs also appears in the story of Laika the Russian dog sent into space. In the first of Sumire's documents she refers to the sacrificed dog and at the end K looks for bloodstains on his hands.

Murakami's writing style is deceptively easy and unpoetic. The poetry comes from the weaving of images and themes, which evolve, shift and change. It leaves you with the sense that you have been dreaming. But as K says: “The answer is dreams. Dreaming on and on. Entering the world of dreams and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time.” 
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