Taichi Yamada: Strangers – Ijin-tachi to no Natsu (1987)

A disconcerting, yet deeply satisfying novel: a wonderful study of grief and isolation, a moving expression of our longing for things we have lost and are unable to have again.

I’ve read about Strangers last year on Novroz’ blog (here is the review) and wanted to read it ever since. It’s a ghost story and as such a perfect choice for Carl’s R.I.P. challenge. But it is also so much more than just a ghost story. It’s a truly wonderful book with a haunting atmosphere, a melancholy depiction of solitude and loneliness with a surprisingly creepy ending.

I often think that the problem some people have with ghost stories is that they take them literally and if they do not believe in the possibility of an afterlife, they do not want to read them. But ghost stories can also be read as purely symbolical. Loneliness, longing and grief can affect a person deeply. Lonely children often start to talk with imaginary friends and also older people can start to talk to themselves which is actually rather a conversation with someone who is not present than a discussion with oneself.

I used to live in a huge apartment building for a while and remember that it could feel strange being awake at night when everyone else was obviously sleeping. All the lights were turned off, there were no noises. Coming home at night and seeing the building from afar, like a big ocean liner, with all the lights on, was also quite special.

Strangers starts in a building just like that. A huge apartment building on Tokyo’s noisy Route 8 where constant traffic keeps you awake and the density of the exhaust fumes forbids the opening of the windows. Most of the apartments are offices. Harada, a fortysomething TV script writer, has stranded here after his divorce. At first he can hardly sleep. The traffic noise is overpowering but after a few weeks he gets used to it. One night, despite the noise outside, he feels an intense loneliness. It seems as if he was the only person in this big building.  He finds out that there is only one other person, a woman, staying at the house at night. Everyone else leaves the place and lives somewhere else.

One night the woman, Kei, knocks on his door and wants to drink a bottle of champagne with Harada but he refuses. He regrets it and invites her a few days later. She is a beautiful woman but with a terrible burn mark where her breasts should be. While they start dating, Harada visits Asakusa, the downtown district in which he used to live with his parents. His parents died when he was very young. He never returned to the place but all of a sudden something attracts him magically. Many of the houses have been destroyed and replaced by modern ugly buildings. While walking around Harada meets a man who looks exactly like his dead father at the time of his death. He follows him to his house and there is his mother, she too is still young and looking exactly like she did before she died.

Harada knows that he shouldn’t return to see his parents but he cannot help himself. He has to go back again and again. His friends start to tell him that he is looking bad. Kei wants him to stop seeing them. He can’t and we understand why.

Something closely akin to the wonderful sense of security I’d felt at such times as a child had descended on me that night in Asakusa. I coul recall no such moments in all the years since my parents had died.

Yamada managed to write a ghost story that is at the same time an eerie tale and a realistic portrayal of loneliness, grief and the search for a meaning in life. Harada is at a turning point in his life. He has a hard time finding jobs, his wife got most of his money after the divorce, his son doesn’t want to see him, most women are not interested in a man like him. Falling in love with Kei seems not so much a choice as inevitable. They are both scarred in different ways. Meeting his dead parents is what infuses his days with meaning and warmth until he starts to pay a prize for it.

What did it amount to, anyway, this life I led? Busying myself with random tasks that popped up one after another, enjoying the moments of excitement each little sir brought before it receded into the distance, yet accumulating no lasting store of wisdom from any of it.

Strangers is an excellent ghost story and a melancholic depiction of the loneliness that living in a big city like Tokyo can bring. I really loved this book. I could hardly put it down and at the same time I didn’t want it to end.

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.