‘Somebody once said if it’s something a single book can explain, it’s not worth having explained...’
There are a few moments in Haruki Murakami’s new novel Sputnik Sweetheart that really catch its central theme. Sumire, the 22 year old sexually confused, putative writer is being tempted by the lure of a different life. She is developing new sensual feelings for an older woman of 38, Miu.
‘Sometimes I feel so- I don’t know - lonely. The kind of helpless feeling when everything you’re used to has been ripped away. Like there’s no more gravity, and I’m left to drift in outer space with no idea where I’m going’
‘Like a little lost Sputnik?’
‘I guess so.'
A simple tale told well. Haruki Murakami is master of creating sexually enigmatic and frustrated characters who seek happiness...but only with people who cannot reciprocate. His world is full of people going through the motions of a life, deeply passionate about music, literature or art, yet somehow never able to feel the same way about fellow humans.
Sputnik Sweetheart is not about Laika the space dog who went into orbit without food or water and literally barked from hunger, loneliness and baked to death. Sputnik Sweetheart is however about a misunderstanding that becomes a nickname for Sumire. Sumire meeting Miu at a banquet she finds herself entranced by this elegant mysterious older woman. Until that very moment Miu ran her fingers through Sumire’s hair she hadn’t known she was gay. From this moment on, heart in mouth she is in orbit around Miu.
Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by K. - a couple of years older than Sumire, he is a contemporary of hers, meeting her at College. He is now a primary school teacher and he loves Sumire deeply. Sumire maintains nocturnal hours to write, calls him regularly at 3am to ‘talk’ but she loves him only as a friend, a source of deep frustration for K.
Of course you’ll quickly realise that if boy loves girl who has just discovered she is gay, it isn’t going to be ‘cute’ or end happily. Sumire doesn’t even know if the object of her affection will return her love. She is too shy or polite to mention it. Miu for her part takes Sumire on to work for her and train in the wine business, then entwining their lives together - perhaps leading Sumire on. Sumire doesn’t care, she is in love.
Naturally this being a Murakami novel, nothing is prosaic. A primary school teacher will and does think very deeply about life and love his music. Sumire has dropped out of College to pursue a life as a writer, is given an allowance by tolerant parents to explore her talents, but she cannot, for whatever reason, ever finish a project she has started or can only come up with good endings for things she cannot begin. When she meets Miu, she cannot write at all.
Miu, elegant, mature and beautiful is flawed. She is hiding a head of pure white hair for one thing, a result of a traumatic experience when she was younger, a true moment of horror. Naturally she is now unable to commit. Thus we have a perfect frustrated love triangle. This is perfectly illustrated when K moves Sumire to her new apartment and experiences a terrific hard on that Sumire just ignores when hugging him and he has to maintain a superhuman will not to pin her down, awaken her to his passion.
Usually Murakami’s novels are rooted in Japan and his technique is to trace the surface of his culture, name the prized labels his characters wear with pride, detail their CDs and books they carry around. This is very much part of Japanese culture. The Japanese cherish labels even more than western young consumers do and are just as fickle. They are very passionate about certain western jazz or other particulates of our Western culture. Sputnik veers off course by taking us out of this world to a distant island in Greece. When you are on an island in literature, you know something will happen. We are forewarned by Sumire telling K about her cat that disappeared, vanished like smoke when she was a child.
Sumire is consumed by her desire for Miu, but is Miu just toying with her? Is she refusing to consummate or acknowledge the passion that she must know that Sumire feels, after all she is the more experienced woman? Sexual frustration can drive a person over the edge. They swim naked, they touch momentarily, but Miu always keeps it formal and Sumire is slowly losing it.
Sputnik Sweetheart is a fast read, easily consumed, slight even. It doesn’t catch your heart in the way that ‘South of the Border ’ does or baffle you as does the wonderful ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’. This is not the book to start with if you are beginning on a journey of exploring Murakami’s work, yet as part of his oevre, it is charming, sweet and a perfect summer read. He will always be enigmatic. You know that Sumire will disappear, like her cat, you know nothing will be resolved, you know that when it is all over ...‘Miu will be like an empty room after everyone has left.’
One reads Murakami as you read poetry, for the sheer pleasure of invention. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is the benchmark and ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland’ still remains for me his masterwork. But if you have read the others, then like me, you will have to read this and Sumire will become woven into the fabric of your dreams. Just by reading a Murakami novel you become one of his characters and you begin to understand with each book that he has been, all the while, quietly