“And for a while I can’t work out what’s real and what isn’t…” – Sumire, Sputnik Sweetheart
The above quote is an excellent summary of my initial feelings about Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.
When I finished this book I felt disoriented and disappointed. A significant storyline was left unresolved. My head was lost in metaphors, trying to interpret a sequence of events, but struggling to reach a place of understanding.
So I did what is now a natural reflex when I am confused: I consulted Google.
Hours of Goodreads reviews later and I was no more certain about the fate of the three protagonists, but I did discover that feelings of confusion were pretty standard symptoms for first-time Murakami readers
Yes, Sputnik Sweetheart is my first Haruki Murakami novel. The Japanese author has a strong loyal following and has written 13 novels to date, not counting his extensive bibliography of short stories and non-fiction essays.
In picking up Sputnik Sweetheart, I stumbled across one of this century’s most celebrated and revered writers.
Right, I thought, I either have to come up with an utterly profound review or pretend I haven’t read it all!
I always feel a slight tinge of self-consciousness when reviewing books that are written by such revered authors. What if I get it wrong? What if I completely miss the point of the plot and sound like an idiot?
I tried to push the book to the back of my mind, but for the past few weeks it has been staring at me from the bookshelf, its bright red cover standing out from the rest. Go on, it says, I dare you.
So, here goes, my interpretation of my first Murakami novel. Hold onto your seats!
Sputnik Sweetheart is set in Tokyo, Japan. The story is told through the eyes of K, a male primary school teacher in his mid-twenties, who is trying to find his place in the world.
“I’d stand at the front of the classroom, teaching my primary-school charges basic facts about language, life, the world, and I’d find that at the same time I was teaching myself these basic facts all over again – filtered through the eyes and minds of these children… Still, the basic questions tugged at me: Who am I? What am I searching for? Where am I going?”
K comes across as a gentle, relatively uninteresting, character. He has few friends and his life outside of work largely consists of reading, television, perhaps a few cold beers before bed. The most interesting thing in his life is Sumire.
Sumire is a young aspiring writer, a ‘lost artist’ type, who spends most of her time dedicated to her craft, rarely stopping to eat or sleep.
The pair met in college, K is two years Sumire’s senior. Both loners, not people to surround themselves with a large group of friends, they found comfort and companionship in each other.
[K]: “We used to spend hours talking. We never got tired of talking, never ran out of topics – novels, the world, scenery, language. Our conversations were more open and intimate than any lovers’.”
However it is clear from the get-go that K wants something more from Sumire. She is the light in his life, the person he gravitates towards, the main character in his personal story.
The novel starts with the revelation – by K – that Sumire has fallen in love, only not with him.
“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits.”
This is K’s opening statement: an acknowledgement of the love of his life’s love for someone else. And an acknowledgement of the violent impact of this love, not just on Sumire, but on K’s world too.
K then works backwards, informing the reader of how Sumire met and fell in love with Miu, a woman 17 years her senior.
He writes with a sort of ‘crazed detachment’, from a necessity to put Sumire’s story on paper but also as if he is convincing himself this is actually happening – that this change is really rocketing through his life.
Then the story takes on an unexpected twist. Sumire vanishes without a trace from a small Greek island, where there are literally no hiding places. She was in Europe with Miu on a business trip.
K flies to Greece and forms an unlikely friendship with Miu, as the two try to find their lost friend. But is everything as it seems? What is real, and what isn’t?
I wish I knew more about Murakami’s reputation before I started reading Sputnik Sweetheart. I interpreted this book too literally, when in hindsight I realise I should have been questioning every word.
K is an unreliable narrator. I think my initial disappointment at the end of the book was a reflection of the misplaced faith I put in K. I wanted to believe every word he wrote was true – that he was painting an authentic picture for me, his reader – but I don’t believe this was the case.
Through K, Murakami deliberately blurred the lines between fact and fiction, injecting just enough plausibility into a scenario to keep you guessing.
There are many theories circulating on the internet about what actually happened to Sumire, but no one will ever know the ‘truth’. Murakami left the storyline open for interpretation. All we have is K’s word – what we take from that is up to us.
This type of writing style is clever and poetical, but so different from ‘mainstream’ novels, where plotlines are neatly wrapped up and explained.
Murakami caught me off-guard, a sly reminder that a writer is not a slave to a reader’s expectations. Next time, I’ll be ready.
[Sumire]: “Sometimes I get so frightened, like everything I’ve done up till now is wrong. I have these realistic dreams and snap wide awake in the middle of the night. And for a while I can’t work out what’s real and what isn’t… That kind of feeling. Do you have any idea what I’m saying?”
[K]: “I think right now it’s like you’re positioning yourself in a new fictional framework. You’re preoccupied with that, so there’s no need to put your feelings into writing. Besides, you’re too busy.”
[Sumire]: “Do you do that? Put yourself inside a fictional framework?”
[K]: “I think most people live in a fiction. I’m no exception. Think of it in terms of a car’s transmission. It’s like a transmission that stands between you and the harsh realities of life. You take the raw power from outside and use gears to adjust it so everything’s all nicely in sync. That’s how you keep your fragile body intact. Does this make any sense?”
[Sumire]: “And I’m still not completely adjusted to that new framework. That’s what you’re saying?”
[Sumire]: “Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings. Just between us, that’s my way of comprehending the world. In a nutshell.”
[K] “When dawn comes, the person I am won’t be here any more. Someone else will occupy this body. Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the Earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”