Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publishing Date: April 2002
Number of Pages: 210 pages
Genre: Magical Realism, Romance, Suspense
K is madly in love with his best friend, Sumire, but her devotion to a writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments. At least, that is, until she meets an older woman to whom she finds herself irresistibly drawn. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, K is solicited to join the search party – and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous visions.
Haruki Murakami is an author who doesn’t really need any introduction. The Japanese novelist has established himself, through his works, as a premier master storyteller. No literary pundit has never heard of him nor has never encountered his works. But to honest, it was quite a challenge, at first, for me to get the hang of his writing. 1Q84, my first Murakami novel, has proved to be a monumental struggle but the positive responses I kept getting for his works kept me entrenched. Slowly, as I immerse in one book after another, I am getting to the heart of his mind-boggling works. His works was also my gateway into the wide world of magical realism.
So, I found myself yet again doing a review of one of his works, Sputnik Sweetheart, which is also part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Moreover, I was also curious on how it compares to the rest of Murakami’s literary repertoire. My usual approach in taking on a Murakami work is that of exhaustion. My previous experiences with his other works gave me that impression that each of his work requires a bucketful of imagination and intellect. But his last three works that I have read, including this one, are reversing such impression.
“I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space they meet, pass each other and never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
The novel is related on the first person view of K. He was relating his unrequited love for his best friend, Sumire. However, Sumire was incapable of love until she met an older woman, Miu. The book’s title was derived when Miu erroneously described Jack Kerouac’s works as Sputnik (in reference to the Russian satellite), rather than Beatnik. However, as the story begun to evolve, Sputnik begun to fit the title as it literally means “traveling companion”. Miu and Sumire went on a European escapade which culminated in Greece. Then things begun to turn for the worse.
There are undertones of romance. Anyone who have read Murakami before would understand that this is just a disguise, a sheep’s skin, a layer to a broader plot. Unrequited love is just another layer but the story’s biggest subject emanates from the internal conflicts which arises when one is stuck on an impasse – should one follow his dreams or should he clamp them down in order to conform to society’s standards. K and Sumire are very individualistic, hence, interesting characters. K represents those of us who, in trying to assimilate into the bigger society, begun to forget how to express our emotions. They, unconsciously, give in to the pressures of a conformist society. Sumire, on the other hand, represent the very rare group of free-spirited and spontaneous individuals.
Often times, the most unsavory part of Murakami’s narrative are the parts dealing with sexual subjects. Murakami’s vivid imagery and intricate descriptions could discomfit many a reader and they could misconstrue it as pornography. But again, as always been the case, the sexual nature and the questions of sexuality were used as plot devices to make the narrative move forward. Sputnik Sweetheart, however, is his first work that I have encountered homosexual relationship. However, the subject was dealt with an offhanded manner because it is another depiction of the libertarian spirit.
“Every story has a tome to be told, I convinced her. Otherwise, you’ll forever be a prisoner to the secret inside you.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
Murakami populated his work with the staple Murakami elements – these things make a Murakami work a Murakami work. The first elements are his unfailing love for music, especially classical music, and books. As in 1Q84 and The Windup Bird Chronicle, Murakami used parallel/alternate worlds as a plot device. However, whereas the two novels extensively used the alternate/parallel worlds, Sputnik Sweetheart used it sparingly, which probably contributed to it being a relatively “lighter” and shorter read.
If there is one thing that was more prominent in this novel over his other works is that its lyrical flow. It is the first time in eight Murakami books that I have gleaned this element of his work. It was midway between the stentorian voices that dominate most of his works and the overwhelmingly passive ones. In a very poetic manner, the narrative flowed seamlessly. Murakami’s generous use of metaphors enriched the narrative. However, at times, the interactions are contrived because of the glaring contrasts in the protagonists’ personalities.
Magical elements aside, Murakami does utilize a whole array of unusual plot devices. In Sputnik Sweetheart, that was again palpable. There are some plot holes but having read numerous Murakami works before, I knew that he deliberately left many elements of the plot unresolved. He does receive a lot of flak for this nuance of his writing. It can be extremely bothersome (hello Norwegian Wood) but it is there for a reason – to make the reader’s imagination work. The way the narrative ended is another classic Murakami scene. The story ended with the unanimous phone call, the location of which is unknown.
“I can understand that thinking just by myself for so long was holding me back, keeping me to a single viewpoint. And I started to feel that being able all alone is a terrible thing.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
It did take me some time to enjoy Haruki Murakami’s works. The elements and nuances of his writing are some things that I have rarely encountered before 1Q84. I was, at first, overwhelmed but the more I read his works, the more I get to understand and appreciate the genius behind Haruki Murakami. But what is really interesting is that with every novel, he gave me a different flavor, a different experience. Sputnik Sweetheart is no different. The way he conveys his message is truly unusual but always amazing.
I am ending my review with this passage from the book:
“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lumps of metal in their own orbit. From far off, they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality, they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
Recommended for dedicated Haruki Murakami readers, readers who like to play with their imagination, readers who like vivid imagery, readers who are into magical realism, alternate worlds, and books involving classical music and cats, and readers who are in need of a break from the world of mundane and formulaic literary works.
Not recommended for readers who have a stereotype of Japanese fiction, if you are Kenzaburo Oe (one of Murakami’s biggest critics), readers who are expecting a more conservative and demurer story, and readers who generally dislike the works of magical fiction.
About the Author
To know more about Haruki Murakami, click here.