Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sputnik Sweetheart

by Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart is not one one of Murakami’s most representative books – or so people who have read a number of his books tell me. But it’s different enough from normal for me to recognize this writer as unique. For one, the book has a Japanese setting without anything in it being particularly Japanese. Other than the names of the characters and the places, the story could be set anywhere, in any of the big cities of the world. So there is no exoticisation (if there is such a word) of a culture – nothing at all like, for instance, Memoirs of a Geisha. For another, while the novel tells a seemingly normal story, there is always an undercurrent of the surreal which gets magnified as the story progresses.

The narrator of the story, identified only as K, is in love with a childhood friend, Sumire, a writer. Sumire’s life is untidy and chaotic, with no fixed plan, unsympathetic to a commercial world outside. The only steadying influence is K, a school teacher who she can call at all times of the day and night and be assured of a listening ear. As Sumire waits for time and experience to teach her to be a writer, she meets Miu and falls in love. Miu is 17 years older and a woman, married, a business woman, as far removed from Sumire’s world as Sputnik is from the earth. This unlikely triangle is the base of the book.

Sumire gets closer to Miu, changes herself to fit into Miu’s world (wears business suits, gets a haircut, is unable to write anymore) and goes off with Miu on a business trip cum holiday to Europe. Which is where she disappears ‘like smoke’ never to be seen again. There is enough of a clue earlier on in the book about this strange event. Miu has a cat that disappears from the top of a tree that it has climbed. No explanations, it disappears just like that. As K goes to the Greek islands to help Miu in her search for Sumire, the tale gets stranger still. He discovers some of Sumire’s writings where she details out Miu’s story. Fourteen years earlier, Miu is stuck in a ferris wheel for the night in a remote Swiss town and as she looks into her apartment from the top of the ferris wheel through her binoculars, she sees herself making love to a stranger. The Miu in the ferris wheel is repulsed, but the Miu in her apartment seems to be enjoying herself. In the morning, Miu wakes up in the ferris wheel with one half of her self completely gone. So the Miu of today is just one half of a whole self, thus explaining her lack of ability to feel anything, to love. Her other self took that away – the ability to love, the ability to make music, the ability to feel.

Sumire disappears, goes into ‘the other world’, Miu loses half her self and K returns to Tokyo to continue his life as a school teacher, a job he seems to be good at, but not something he seems to care too deeply about.

The whole alienation thing seems to be a big theme in Murakami’s novel. Sumire is a writer alienated from the normal world where no one seems to get her. So she has to, in a sense go to ‘the other world’, presumably a world in which the ‘other Miu’ resides, a world where she can live out her passionate life, hopefully with the Miu that can feel. The book is a stark commentary on the commercial, normal world that makes people lose things that are intrinsic to them. It is a deeply unsettling theme, and one that stays with you long after you have finished the book.

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