To quote Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Oh weirdness. Protect me from more weirdness.”
I’ve read a considerable number of Haruki Murakami’s books, and by and large his body of work is outstanding. When he’s at his best, he’s one of my favorite authors (in particular, the fantastical extra-meta novel “Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World” and the slightly more soft-spoken but similarly brain-bending “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”). His writing is firmly in the surrealist camp (or “magical realism” or “absurdist” if you can’t shake the association between surrealism and Salvador Dali’s mustache), featuring inexplicable and unexplained phenomena like giant frogs here to save the world, doppelgangers with violent sexual appetites, talking shadows and a character named Johnny Walker. A lot of people don’t go in for surrealist fiction, insisting that literature remain true to life in the strictest sense, but those people are stupid and their opinion doesn’t matter. Thankfully, the strict realist school of fiction is on the wane. So now that you know what I think about that without even having to ask…
In “Sputnik Sweetheart,” out narrator, K, falls in love with an aspiring novelist named Sumire, but finds his affections unrequited. The two remain friends after she drops out of college and he goes on to become an elementary school teacher. Eventually, Sumire gives up on her abortive writing career, and takes a job with a mysterious woman named Miu, who runs a wine import business. The trick is, for the first time in her life, Sumire falls in love. With Miu. Who, not only is a woman, but also is in her mid-50s. Not a big deal, right? I mean, not really. Unfortunately enough, when Sumire and Miu go on a business trip to Greece, and then decide to vacation for a week on a small Greek island, Sumire disappears without a trace. No amount of search provides even a clue. Miu, having been told of K by Sumire in the past, calls our narrator and convinces him to come to the unnamed Greek island to help in the search. Naturally, K obliges.
However, K finds that there isn’t much searching to do. Sumire has already been missing for four days, the police have been contacted, and even the Japanese embassy is involved. There’s not much for him to do, physically speaking. But then Miu confides in him a detail that she had kept secret from the official parties: the night before she disappeared, Sumire had appeared in Miu’s bedroom, nude, sweating and comatose. Miu eventually managed to get Sumire into her bed, and then laid with her, letting Sumire kiss and caress her until Sumire began to cry and retreated back to her own bedroom. The following day, K comes across a pair of documents on Sumire’s computer, in which she details a story Miu had told her of her own strange sexual history that involves watching herself from afar having voracious, degrading sex with a Catalonian named Ferdinando in a Swiss mountain town while the real Miu (or at least the Miu that ended up telling Sumire the story) was stuck at the apex of a Ferris wheel. Miu goes on to tell Sumire that since that day, she has felt like a diminished person, like some part of her had left and run off with the Catalonian, leaving her somehow empty. K returns to Tokyo without having found Sumire.
“Sputnik Sweetheart” is written in an understated, ethereal tone that serves to down play the surrealistic moments in the story. Most writers of this type of fiction have a tendency to over play the stranger moments, rendering them in heavy strokes of deep detail, over-compensating for the unreal nature of the material. It’s as if they’re preparing a defense against the anti-surrealist critics by trying to be as concrete and detailed as possible. Murakami, however, does the opposite. He lays out the impossible in succinct, efficient language – it’s not flowery and does not draw undue attention, and has the effect of making the surreal seem almost commonplace and unremarkable. It can occasionally be frustrating, though, when you realize that something bizarre (and therefore presumably important) has just occured, and you didn’t really notice and now have to reread the passage. This may also be a function of reading on the train to work in the morning with barely an eye open, but you get the idea. He’s subtle.
He is so subtle, in fact, that when I first began writing this review, I was going to try to compare “Sputnik Sweetheart,” in terms of surrealist content, with the two novels surrounding it – “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” coming just before it, and “Kafka On The Shore,” just after – because I couldn’t really manage to come up with a better through-line. However, in the process of writing this thing, I have turned the novel over in my head couple of times and have come to a much better understanding of it, thematically speaking. But knowing what I now know, I don’t really feel like I should just spill the beans and tell you how I’ve interpreted the book. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. You’re suppposed to come away with what you will, and I come away with what I will. Of course, I’m left with the little problem of having spent an hour writing a short book review for a blog that is dangerously in need of regular updating. This is how every Murakami book ends.
Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami
Pub:1999 by Vintage International
Page Count: 210
Page Count without two fully produced word processor documents from a character’s laptop: 180.
Out of context quote: “ Sumire could recall every last detail of the dream. She could have painted a picture of it.The only thing she couldn’t recall was her mother’s face as it was sucked into that black hole. And the critical words her mother spoke, too, were lost forever in that vacant void. In bed, Sumire violently bit her pillow and cried and cried. THE BARBER WON’T BE DIGGING ANY MORE HOLES.” [author’s capitalization, not yours truly’s]
Before his writing career, the author: Owned and operated a jazz club.