Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

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Murakami’s meditation on loneliness, fiction, and the ambiguities of self is as thought provoking as it is haunting. The novel develops in phases, beginning as a descriptive character driven love story before becoming increasingly metaphorical and abstract. The transition is smooth and stimulating – Sputnik Sweetheart never fails to surprise and engage as its narrative moves through different forms. The translation I read, by Philip Gabriel, is smooth, accessible, and often beautiful.

It begins with Sumire, an eccentric, iconoclastic college dropout struggling to become a great novelist. The unnamed narrator, known as K., is the novel’s other major character, and we know from his affectionate, detailed descriptions of Sumire that he’s in love with her. He describes her clothes, her habits, and her ambitions in a way that makes his feelings obvious even before he bluntly confesses them. Sumire is an intriguing character. She’s naive and somewhat selfish, but she’s honest and charmingly offbeat. She’s a good creation. Murakami, in composing K.’s narration, knows this. The book’s opening encourages us to simply marvel at her weirdness. K. himself is a less vivid, if more present character than Sumire. He’s a more passive, less reckless individual. He’s gone through life playing by the rules, never really excelling at anything, ending up as a teacher, a productive, acceptable member of society. But he has a strong voice. He has opinions, philosophical musings, and habits. He has passion. He’s not the novel’s best character, but he’s a well-drawn narrator.

Early on, Murakami introduces many of the existential questions which take hold later in the novel. Sumire meets and falls in love with Miu, an older, professional woman who employs her as a secretary. Sumire asks K. the difference between a sign and a symbol, opening up a discourse on semiotics – the separation between what is and what is described. This inquiry is especially important in its relation to identity. As Sumire works for Miu, she changes her habits and appearance. She stops writing. Has Sumire, the entity described by K. in loving detail, disappeared?

The next phase of the novel deals with Sumire’s supposedly literal disappearance while vacationing with Miu on a remote Greek island. Murakami loves to take his characters’ anxieties and give them symbolic form. Sumire and K.’s fundamental loneliness is complemented by both the imagery of Sputnik, the isolated satellite, and the Greek island. Sumire’s disappearance itself is an example of this tendency.

I would accuse Murakami of over-explaining if he wasn’t so ambiguous in his handling of some of the book’s important mysteries. There are some tenuous conclusions: the self is elusive and loneliness is, to some extent, inevitable for many. I was reminded of Wong Kar Wai’s films, in particular Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, which depict isolated individuals who experience brief respites from their routine existence. But for the most part, answers are scarce in Sputnik Sweetheart. The enigmatic ending invites interpretation as to the book’s themes and its characters’ fates.

At one point, K. ponders the inner turmoil of a troubled, mysterious student. Is it as hard to know yourself as it is to know others? Sumire claims to fall in love with Miu during their first conversation, but they hardly know each other. Nevertheless, Sumire has an idea of what Miu is. An idea that makes sense, an idea that’s whole. But over the course of the novel, we learn more about Miu, including her own troubled relationship with identity.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is its treatment of writing and fiction in particular.  Sumire struggles to write cohesive novels; she can write endlessly, but she can’t fit it all together. K. theorizes that this is because she hasn’t had enough experience, though he frames this in metaphorical terms, telling her about the Chinese practice of anointing city walls with animal blood after a ritual sacrifice. Later, when Sumire struggles to write during her professional and emotional changes, he tells her that she’s in the process of fitting her existence into a new fictional framework. The concept of using a fictional framework to deal with our existence is intriguing – K. compares it to a car’s transmission. This gets back into the issue of semiotics. Is our conception of self, our conception of others, and our engagement with both dependent on convenient fictions which stand in for reality? Sumire says at one point that she writes so that she can think, and that while in the throes of passion for Miu, she couldn’t think and therefore couldn’t write. Though most of us don’t rely on writing the way that Sumire does, we do lean on language, itself composed of symbols (or signs?) to think and act. Fiction, whether filmed, written, or drawn, has become extremely important to our lives. Sputnik Sweetheart examines this phenomenon at a deeper level.

One of the book’s recurring questions is whether or not our humanity is dependent on passion. This is shown in part through K. and Sumire’s conversation on her writing. It’s implied that once she falls in love, she’ll gain something which will improve her skills as a writer. Sputnik Sweetheart doesn’t deal exclusively with weighty philosophical matters – it’s also a story of unrequited love. Murakami handles this aspect well, telling a relatable story of likable people who fail to connect in the ways they desire.

Sputnik Sweetheart is short and powerful. Murakami beautifully illustrates his characters’ fundamental sadness, resulting in an extremely emotional philosophical novel which avoids being esoteric.

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