Thoughts on Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

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I read Murakami’s work far too quickly; his writing has a really fresh, contemporary feel to it that’s so different to any other fiction.

I was talking to my boss at work about Murakami, and he said how his favourite novel by him was Sputnik Sweetheart. I had not read it, and so I quickly got hold of it to change this.

It’s a reasonably short text at 229 pages, and it is quickly read. My edition (the Vintage one you tend to see in bookshops, shown on the right) has a semi-nude lady on the front, which made me wonder what territory I was getting into.

It’s just the ordinary Murakami level of sex, really, and no Fifty Shades.

Here’s the blurb, for interested readers:

Sumire is in love with a woman seventeen years her senior. But whereas Miu is glamorous and successful, Sumire is an aspiring writer who dresses in an oversized second-hand coat and heavy boots like a character in a Kerouac novel. Sumire spends hours on the phone talking to her best friend K about the big questions in life: what is sexual desire, and should she ever tell Miu how she feels for her? Meanwhile K wonders whether he should confess his own unrequited love for Sumire. Then, a desperate Miu calls from a small Greek island: Sumire has mysteriously vanished…

Murakami has a habit of recycling themes and symbols throughout his novels. This is to no ill effect; in fact, it helps to make his work truly his. For example, there’s his symbolic use of cats, telephones, and disappearances in Sputnik Sweetheart. K also questions more than once if Sumire could be down a well. Please say she isn’t, I was thinking. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle instilled in me a perpetual fear of wells.

I found it quite unusual for half of a Murakami novel to take place in Greece. Distance is a common theme in his work, but I didn’t think that he took his writing out of Japan much (correct me if I’m wrong). This choice of location has interesting implications: through Sumire travelling to Greece, is it suggested that she has lost her true, Japanese identity? Is Greece chosen because of links to The Odyssey? Homer’s work is mentioned in the last few pages of the novel, and the two plots certainly intertwine. It is narrated:

‘”Hey, I’m back,” said Sumire. Very casual. Very real. “It wasn’t easy, but somehow I managed it. Like a 50-word précis of Homer’s Odyssey.”‘

Is she really back? The plot centres on moving away from the homeland – Japan –  and none of the characters truly come back as they were before, or whole. After returning from Greece, K is able to empathise with Carrot (no, he’s not ginger) and break off the affair with Carrot’s mother (something he appeared unable to do before). Sumire seems trapped in a world that K can only access through his dreams, among many other interpretations. Why the blood reference at the end? For some reason, I immediately wondered if K was the person Miu saw in her apartment from the ferris wheel. That doesn’t really make sense, but it’s what came to mind! Murakami’s work certainly isn’t intended to have one perfect interpretation; I’m unsure if the author has even made up his own mind on certain points.

What is certain, however, is that his characters are easily relatable to many. Frequently they’re the introverted type who spend their time in the worlds of fiction and classical music – this certainly rings a bell! His characters also undergo journeys to discover and assert their identity, which makes me question my own progression and self-development, whether through experience, the books I read, or the people I meet.

In this individual novel, I found that I could relate to Miu best. On the surface, Miu appears perfect: she has a good job, good tastes, she speaks several languages. Yet she’s undergone trauma that breaks her identity, effectively. Despite this, her issues from the past doesn’t seem to shape her life. Miu does appear lost, as K observes when he sees her driving towards the novel’s end, but she doesn’t let that mean her life is over. I do not appear perfect like Miu does by any means, but I do try to disguise problems. I’m still unsure as to whether this stoicism is beneficial, or if I should open up my emotions and past experiences more. I expect that this question will be left undecided for me in the foreseeable future, but perhaps reading the remainder of Murakami’s repertoire will help things along!

The man himself, image from Wikipedia

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