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.

19 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart (2001) aka Sputoniku no koibito (1999)

  1. Several things came to my mind when reading your post. I’ll just throw them into the void, like disordered shooting stars.

    What you say about being distracted by clues and references reminded me of a music teacher saying he had difficulties to enjoy pop songs because he could see the scores and effects so well when hearing them.
    Then at the same time, it’s a funny thing to do, chasing references.

    Loss seems to be a common theme in Murakami’s work. It is there in the 3 books I’ve read or tried to read. (South of the Border, West of the Sun ; Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles). An the references to animals too.

    I see there are surreal elements in this one too. I suppose that’s why South of the Border, West of the Sun is different from his other work.

    About Murakami not being a Japanese writer. I thought of that too when I posted about South of the Border, West of the Sun. I wondered if it was because he was living in America when he wrote it. But I agree with you, he’s still Japanese. He would write in English if his inner voice was all Western now. Some writers, like Nancy Huston, don’t write in their native language. This makes me think she does exactly the opposite as Murakami : he writes in Japanese and his stories are set in Japan, even when he was living in America. She lives in France, writes in French but the novels I’ve read by her are set in America.

    I only hope that all the Western references don’t have a marketing aim, ie not to lose a Western reader with references they wouldn’t understand and thus make his books more “salable”

    I’m not up for a new Murakami right now but I’ll remember of this one.

    Scattered PSs :
    In the center of my city, we have a sculpture by Murakami: it’s a huge and colorful flower bouquet. It looks great along the Rhone.
    I haven’t forgotten I promised to read The Return of the Soldier.
    I have found a used copy of Gut gegen Nordwind. (In French translation, of course)

    • I think if you read too much Murakami it could be repetitive. I read one review and the person did not enjoy the reappearance of black cats. Maybe it matters whether you read is books chronologically? There seem to be more black cats in Kafka on the Shore. I’m not sure about marketing aims when throwing in so many references like he did. I hope not but I would be interested if he really is as much liked in Japan as outside. I was also thinking of his choice to write in Japanese and not in English but does the use of language make you a non-Japanese writer. What would it make me, or you should we publish a book in English? The question of identity is interesting and he is a good example to discuss it. I always think, one should ask the writer. If he feels he is a Japanese writer, then that’s it, no? It makes me think of Haitian writers who live in Canada, writing in French. What are they? I liked the fact that during the department in which I studied at the Sorbonne was called Département de littératures françaises. The language was the important factor. Maybe that is wrong? Nancy Huston is a good example too. I cannot even say what I consider myself to be…
      I would like to see that sculpture. I remember, the first time I saw his paintings at the ART in Basel I was a bit puzzled.
      The Return of the Soldier is very short (amazingly short). A used copy of the Glattauer, already?

      • It’s not a question of language in itself or of the country you live in. My point is more of not writing in your native language. What does it mean when your inner voice speaks another language? Is it rejecting your culture or a former self or just finding a language that better suits your mind? Languages don’t use the same ways to describe a same situation.

        What can I say about my dear Romain Gary? Never writing anything in Russian : he wanted so much to be French that he changed his name (officially, not just a penname) and wrote in French.

        Then, there’s a chance that coming from a language and writing in another one makes you find new boundaries in that adopted language. For example, Gary twisted French to write things in a syntax allowed in Russian but not in French. His French was innovative.
        Another example is that talk about love words in English vs French we had in the comments on my Wharton post. If I were to write a book in English, I couldn’t use “to belong to” or whatever “property” words for describing love. It would sound wrong to me. So I would use English words and write according to a French tune. Would that result in an innovative use of the English language?

        It’s different for you with French and German as none of them are an acquired language. If you had to write a book, what language would you choose?
        Honestly, I don’t know what I would do.

        “A used copy of the Glattauer, already?” Yes. I have a 6 hours flight or so for work in a couple of weeks, this book seems perfect. Easy to read and not too highbrow to show in front of colleagues. Definitely not the moment to read Proust. That’s another great advantage of the kindle, no one knows what you’re reading and in which language. So you can quietly be an alien without anyone noticing. 🙂

        • Gary is an interesting case, that’s sure. Or any one writing in another language than their native language. 🙂
          I already made the decision. I do write in English. My German is too sophisticated to be savourable, I never felt like writing in French or only rarely. English works best for fiction. It flows freely, I polish it of course (when I write short stories or other things, I mean, I do not polish much for the blog. The blog reflects my spoken language). Besides, should I ever want to publish in German, living in Switzerland, I would immediately carry the “Swiss” stigma.
          I meant already a used copy (as it’s fairly new) not that you already have a used copy. I agree, it’s pleasant and easy to read. I don’t get it, why it shouldn’t look high brow? Surely no one would comment on that? At least no one ever did in my case or would think it strange to read Proust… I just think some things clash. I had Anna Karenina with me on my flight to Hong Kong. That did NOT work.

      • I didn’t know you were a writer too. Wow.

        Why shouldn’t it look too high brow? Because I don’t want them to crack jokes on me like the last time we played a game and I was the only one to know who Magritte and the father of psycho-analysis were. I’m not working in the same environment as you. So I’m going to take Glattauer and Beigbeder. Safe.

        I couldn’t finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I have a post on it. I never managed to enter into this book and it was a very long one, so I abandoned it. It reminded me of John Irving, a writer I don’t like.

        • I haven’t published so technically (according to most people) I am not a writer. It’s the reason why I started the blog, to write regularly again, daily, especially in English but now it takes up a lot of my time and I am not sure what to do. There is some serious thinking needed.
          I see what you mean, guess, no, it’s not the same environment. I wouldn’t know of anyone not knowing Magritte in my department. Other departments are different. I agree, you need a change… It’s one thing to not know something but to make fun of someone who does…
          I had a problem with Irving at first and then I read A Son of the Circus. That was so great.

  2. What a great review Caroline!
    I was afraid you won’t enjoy the book as you said it in my review…but it seemed that you finally come to enjoy it.

    This is one of my favorites by Murakami. I enjoy his surreal story so much.

    I think Murakami is so Japanese..the one writer that has Japanese name but lost his Japanese style in writing is Kazuo Ishiguro.

    • Yes, I’m glad I liked it in the end. When I started I was not sure at all as my mind was behaving in such an odd way… Yes, you are right, Ishiguro can not really be considered to be Japanese writer and I think he doesn’t see himself as such at all. He writes in English, chooses English topics, lives in the UK.

    • Thanks for the link. I will check it later. I think the challenge got a bit of notoriety all of a sudden end of January when a journalist mentioned it in an online news magazine. Since then I think at least 500 people entered but not that many have posted reviews.

  3. I started this and put it aside. I had read three of Murakami’s novels in a row, and another one was just a bit much.

    On the question of Murakami not being a “Japanese” writer because he writes about things that are “European”: I think that says rather a lot about the questioner’s assumptions of what “Japanese” means. I see Orientalism poking its head above the parapet! 🙂

    I must get back to Sputnik and finish it.

    • I think he is a writer whose books you need to space out a bit as there is a certain repetition of themes and motifs.
      “Exotism” came to my mind as well. I think many people have a more traditional Japanese literature in mind. Takashi Atoda whose short stories I read earlier this year fits this well but modern day writers take another approach. It’s very playful. I’m sure you will like it once you finish it. It does seem one of his books people like in general. I think my next one will really be Norwegian Wood.

  4. The limitations people try to place on writers because of their countries of origin never fail to amaze me, Caroline, and how funny here that German critics (I assume they were German newspaper writers that you’re talking about?) would presume to define what being a Japanese writer would mean for a Japanese writer like Murakami! Anyway, I enjoyed your review: the book sounds interesting, and that cover is very striking!

    • The guy who wrote it is a renowned literary critic. I found him quite condescending. I thought interesting to add it as the reception of non-Western literature is always revealing. I think that same guy also commented that for a change it wasn’t insufferably sexual or something along that line. Murakami is interesting because he seems to divide people. I am looking forward to his next one as I think he writes a large canvas and not only individual books. I start to believe he isn’t repeating himself but linking his books. I would be curious to see what you think of him. I rather like the cover as well.

  5. Very well reviewed. I am a great fan of Murakami and its interesting to read something from someone who obviously enjoys him as much as I do.

  6. I’m afraid I’ve not read much Japanese literature at all–maybe only one or two books and the most recent several years ago was a crime novel. Many times I’ve looked at Murakami’s books but I’m not sure whether I would like him. I don’t always deal well in the abstract so I tend to keep putting off reading him. Where would you suggest starting with his books?

    • I think you would like South of the Border, West of the Sun. It isn’t typical and far from abstract or surreal but you get a flavour. A very beautiful story. And then maybe this one as it is quite short, only 200 pages. It seems that his fans love dance, dance, dance but I haven’t read it. I’m very curious to read Kafka on the Shore as one of the main themes are black cats, much more than in this one but it is much longer. You really have to be in the mood for him as he is very special.

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