Haruki Murakami, trans Philip Gabriel
229pp, Harvill, £12
'Why do people have to be so lonely? What's the point of it all?' muses 'K', Murakami's mild-mannered narrator as he retreats from a Greek island. No ordinary anguish here - Sumire, the sulky object of his desire, has 'disappeared. Like smoke'.
If 'resolution' isn't a key word, you may be in for a treat, as Murakami's novel is a slippery fish which consistently defies categorisation. He takes the bare bones of a narrative and fleshes it out with the trademark surreal, labyrinthine imagery that has won him legions of fans worldwide. The effect is a dreamlike, detached quality.
As the book opens, Sumire is experiencing first love, 'a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains'. Her desire, although not her affection, is unrequited by glamorous wine merchant Miu, a woman 17 years her senior. Sumire updates her best friend K on developments in urgent chain-smoking 3am communications from a phone box. K has become adept at concealing his true feelings and offers advice and support - but much of the narrative involves his detailed reconstruction of Sumire's desire. 'Deep within Miu's eyes, as if in a quiet pool in a swift stream, wordless currents vied with one another. Only gradually did these clashing currents settle.'
Is this Sumire's exaggerated telephone description, or the overheated imagination of K, condemned to vicarious thrills? It's unclear, but the structure of retelling is fascinating: male author creates a non-starter lesbian affair seen through the wistful eyes of a third party. Murakami doesn't engage in any conventional coming-out discussion - initially Sumire feels that Miu 'happened to be a woman' - but, again, the interest lies in K's ambivalent response to the fact.
Despite allowing himself a certain amount of grief that Sumire does not feel for him 'as a man', he seems to have her best interests at heart - or does he? Murakami treads an intriguingly fine line.
When Sumire, reader of scientific articles, amusingly decides that her lesbianism must be linked to a small bone in her ear, K responds that 'any explanation or logic that explains anything so easily has a hidden trap in it_ don't leap to any conclusions'.
There's a suspicion here that his apparent sagacity stems from ulterior motives, but he staunchly represses his desire for Sumire, and they talk concepts and metaphors instead.
Murakami omits direct Japanese cultural references - the friends listen to Bach, love Marc Bolan and discuss Kerouac which, combined with the American English translation, gives the novel a strange flavour. There's a sense of rootlessness and a dislocation from their immediate surroundings in K and Sumire's conversations on dead icons, and this enhances the sense of the characters being adrift in a foreign land which is their own. Even Sumire's name for her lover, Sputnik Sweetheart, is based on Miu mishearing her reference to Beatniks in their first tentative conversation.