J314 Japanese Literature in Translation

Paper Topic #2: Varieties of Darkness/Loneliness

As one reviewer of Sputnik Sweetheart puts it:

I'll come right out and say it: I don't really know what
Murakami's startling new novel is about. But it has touched
me deeper and pushed me further than anything I've read in
a long time. (...) Murakami has given us a work so much
larger and more pungent than the sum of its parts.

- Julie Myerson, The Guardian

In their own very different ways, both Natsume Soseki's Kokoro and Murakami Haruki's Sputnik Sweetheart address the problems of friendship, loneliness and darkness in our world. Soseki asks his readers to ponder questions about morality, ethics, individualism, trust, alienation, relationships--what it means to teach and to learn--and he explores the possibilities for communication between people--between friends as well as marriage partners, between teachers and students, between older and younger generations. Soseki's darkness also seems to be rather historically and culturally specific: the end of the Meiji era and the death of an older order. But there is apprehension about the new, as well. How possible is it to come know another human being and understand what is in his/her heart? How well do we know what is in our own heart and of what deeds were are capable?

Is Soseki asks us to gaze deeply into the darkness of the modern condition, Murakami may be asking us to think about the "postmodern" condition. He deals with all the uncertainty, ambivalence and angst we associate with contemporary life. As he says in the beginning of his novel, "This is where it all began, and where it all wound up. Almost." That "Almost,"of course, makes everything contingent. In Soseki's work, genuine communication is perceived as something very difficult to achieve; in Murakami's, characters orbit right past each other in space, like satellites, unable to really touch, make contact, or connect with one another. But perhaps appropriate to a postmodern work, Sputnik Sweetheart does not limit itself to the ordinary or familiar dimensions of human existence, but asks us to consider the possibility of fantastical and even paranormal ones. [Sensei meets the X-Files??] "Sumire broke through the mirror and journeyed to the other side. To meet the other Miu who was there." How do we make sense of this?

Kokoro, at least, left us with a document, one bequeathed from an older to a younger man. Perhpas it contains a teaching. Perhaps it contains some hope. What does Murakami leave us with? Are we any more (or less) hopeful? In Sumire's "Documents," we learn that the narrator of Sputnik Swetheart is identified only as "K." Is this a nod to Soseki? He does refer specifically to Soseki on p. 39 though not to Kokoro but to Sanshiro.

Although these two novels may seem like an unlikely pairing, write an essay that explores how they might actually be probing some of the same issues in human nature despite the eighty-year time difference in their construction. See if you can find two or three themes or issues in which the authors or characters seem to share an interest. Think of it as juxtaposing or bouncing two books off of one another; what sparks seems to fly and in what direction? If this does not seem at all feasible or appealing, go ahead and concentrate on a single text but try and show here and there in your paper how the other text was doing something either similar or very different.

 

There is no moral justice in Murakami's world; there is only the duty - both epistemological and moral - to try to understand.

--Steven Poole, The Guardian