Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart (2001) aka Sputoniku no koibito (1999)

The narrator, a teacher, is in love with the beguiling, odd Sumire. As his best friend, she is not adverse to phoning at three or four in the morning to ask a pointless question or share a strange thought. Sumire, though, is in love with a beautiful, older woman, Miu, who does not, can not, return her affections. Longing for Sumire, K (that is all we are told by way of a name) finds some comfort in a purely sexual relationship with the mother of one of his pupils. But the consolation is slight. K is unhappy. Miu and Sumire, now working together, take a business trip to a Greek Island. Something happens, he is not told what, and so K travels to Greece to see what help he can offer.

Sputnik Sweetheart was my second Haruki Murakami. The first one I read was South of the Border, West of the Sun which I liked a lot but I was told many times that it wasn’t a typical Murakami.

It was a strange experience to read Sputnik Sweetheart but not because of the book, I didn’t think it was all that weird but my reactions to it were weird as it reminded me of a lot of other books I have read before. Instead of enjoying it my mind started to rush around like a hungry little monkey looking for food and trying to solve the riddles of the 1001 allusions. If I hadn’t been so busy doing this, I would have enjoyed it much more while reading it but looking back on it I think it is a marvelous book. Unusual, original and fascinating. And furthermore, having finished it, I saw that what happened to me, this mad chasing of “clues”, is probably not completely unintentional. I think the author is well aware of our European triggers and pulls them one by one.

I read quite a few reviews who stated that it wasn’t easy to describe what the book is all about. I don’t think that’s true. It’s a pretty straightforward story and you can summarize it in a few sentences. The problem is that wouldn’t do the book any justice as plot line is not Murakami’s main concern.

K, an elementary school teacher, is madly in love with Sumire, a strange, intelligent, loner type girl who wants to become an author. Sumire however falls for Miu, a married woman and 18 years her senior. They meet at a wedding reception and due to a misunderstanding related to the writer Jack Kerouac, Sumire’s favourite author of the month, Sumire calls Miu Sputnik Sweetheart.

Ever since that day Sumire’s private name for Miu was Sputnik Sweetheart. She loved the sound of it. It made her think of Laika, the dog. The man-made satellite streaking soundlessly across the blackness of outer space. The dark, lustrous eyes of the dog gazing out of the tiny window. In the infinite loneliness of space, what could Laika possibly be looking at?

Sensing that a change is needed in Sumire’s life, Miu offers her a job. Part of this job is a trip to Europe. The two women travel from France to Italy and from there to Greece and there Sumire disappears. Miu asks K to come to Greece and help her look for Sumire. He travels to Greece but the whole adventure proves to be futile.That is the story in a nutshell.

The central theme of this novel is loss. In many different forms. And getting lost and being lost, and losing as well as never reaching what we want. The people in this little universe that is Sputnik Sweetheart all chase something. Most of them love someone who loves someone else. They feel trapped and isolated like little satellites circling aimlessly through space.

So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that is stolen from us – that is snatched right out of our hands – even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.

They also chase dreams that seem unreachable. Sumire who wants to become a writer, can’t write a real novel, Miu who wanted to become a pianist had to give up the piano.

And there are the side stories of lost animals. Sumire had  a little tortoise-shell cat that climbs a tree and is never seen again. K had a little dog, his only childhood friend, whom he loses too. And there are the black cats. Since I am an owner of black cats I could relate to this very well. Many of Murakami’s novels are populated by black felines.

K’s and Sumire’s love and friendship is a very beautiful one. They are both loners and bookish people who talk endlessly on the phone. It is sad that Sumire does absolutely not feel attracted to K. Despite the attraction Sumire’s feels for Miu, K is her true love.

I have read a few newspaper articles that came out at the time of the publication of Sputnik Sweetheart in Germany and quite a lot of them stated that Murakami wasn’t really a Japanese author because there are endless references to European culture. It is true, that this is surprising. In this novel, he enumerates many European composers like Mozart and Brahms, and also European performers. Apart from one book, Soseki’s novel Sanshiro, every book, movie or city that is mentioned is European.

Does the fact that a Japanese author cites so many European things make him less of a Japanese writer? I absolutely don’t think so and believe that on the very contrary,  this is a typically Japanese novel. The excellent evocation of futility of beauty for one thing, but then also the mix of genres (adventure story, ghost story, detective and love story) and the quoting of books. And quoting is only one thing, there is also a subtle intertextuality. Does K not remind us of the K in Kafka’s book? And the Doppelgänger motif is reminiscent of a lot of German literature.

Maybe we have to study modern Japanese paintings to be able to get Murakami.

Be it as it may, I’m extremely glad I read this book and am looking forward to the next one.

As a little visual impression of Murakami’s books I attached another Murakami’s work.

Both paintings are by Takashi Murakami.

This was my first Murakami for the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge. Other reviews of this and other Murakami novels can be found there.