“Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami

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“A profound meditation on human longing.”

This was what the last sentence of the book’s summary on Goodreads.com says. Although I have a default setting of distrust when it comes to Goodreads (or any similar site’s) summaries, when I revisited this one after I had read the novel, I thought this sentence perfectly described the book. The rest of the summary, though, was a little misleading.

When searching for something to read, having just recommended Murakami’s “1Q84” to a fellow reader, I suddenly found myself possessed with the urge to read something else by him. (I read, but never blogged about, the wonderful and poignant “Norwegian Wood” earlier this year and loved it. I’ve also read the aforementioned 1Q84 and his collection of short stories, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.) So a quick search led me to this intriguing title, “Sputnik Sweetheart.”

“What on earth could that be about?” I wondered. Included in the Goodreads.com summary was the statement that the novel: “plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles.” Well, that sounded great, as I am a fan of nearly all those things. Unfortunately, they don’t figure that prominently in the story. The reader does learn quickly, though, the source of the odd title: one of the characters is the 22-year old woman Sumire, a fledgling but prolific writer who is “absolutely nuts” about Jack Kerouac, and later, when she meets the “older woman” who becomes her first true love, she is asked about Kerouac by the woman who says, “wasn’t he a ‘Sputnik?'” confusing that foreign word with the term “beatnik.” Sadly, we leave Kerouac behind at that point of the book.

(below: 1957’s Sputnik satellite)

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The book becomes the story of an odd love triangle, or more properly stated, an unrequited love triangle. The narrator, a man whose name is only given to the reader as “K,” is a couple years older than Sumire and in love with her, despite the fact that he knows she does not feel the same about him. They are, however, kind of intellectual soul mates, and though tormented by his unrequited love, K cannot leave her orbit.

Things change a little when Sumire meets the older – and wealthy – Miu, who is impressed with this odd girl and hires her to help in her business. Her working relationship with Miu leads Sumire to become a little more sophisticated in dress and manner. She is unable, though, to let Miu know of her feelings toward her.

This is where we are when Murakami adds his standard dollop of the supernatural to the story. On a European trip, Miu and Sumire spend a few days on a small Greek island when strange things begin to happen… Events lead Miu to call K and ask that he come to the island.

Sumire has disappeared. “Like smoke” it seems. Of course K goes there immediately, but – though he learns more about Miu and Sumire’s relationship – he is unable to help in locating her and also gets enveloped by the numinous nature of the island, or maybe the world itself. When the search is eventually given up, he muses about things:

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

He then looks up to the stars and continues: “I gazed among them for the light of a satellite,but it was still too bright out to spot one with the naked eye. 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 part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.”

How’s that for heartbreaking? In my opinion, the book may have effectively ended here, but K returns to Japan and his life’s routines. We – well, maybe kinda sort of – find out what became of Sumire, but I wondered if this was something better left to the reader’s imagination.

After re-reading this post, it sounds like I’m labeling the book as a real downer, but it’s not. I really, really liked it. Even more so than the suicide-strewn “Norwegian Wood” which somehow wasn’t exactly a downer (for this reader, anyway) either.

P.S. I would also like to thank the blogger Dolce Belezza for first suggesting Murakami to me when I was looking for short stories to fill my 2011 reading project.

What do you think of Murakami. What should I read next by this author?

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(above: Author Haruki Murakami <picture from The Guardian>)

I’ve started Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

– unknown (I’ve seen it attributed to both Confucius and Lao Tzu)

Mathematically, of course, this quotation is quite true – although I wonder how many have actually completed a thousand-mile journey on foot. I actually remember using the quotation once with a stranger I encountered in Zion National Park, I think in 2004. I had been hiking up the West Rim Trail “all day,” and I was nearing the rim of the canyon when he came around the corner hiking down. He told me he had come from Lava Point, which is probably a good 10 miles further up the trail from where we were. He said cheerfully, “It’s amazing how far you can travel just by putting one foot in front of the other.” I responded with “Like they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!” This was an encounter that probably lasted all of ninety seconds, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. Perhaps the relative isolation of encountering another human being has something to do with it, or perhaps it was just our joint realization of a “classic truth.”

(below: near the top of the canyon on the West Rim Trail)

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Anyway, I’m always reminded that quotation when I start reading a long book. Like this week when, thanks to Bellezza at her excellent blog, Dolce Bellezza, I was tempted into buying and downloading Haruki Murakami’s latest effort, 1Q84. My exposure thus far to Murakami has been only in the form of a couple of short stories that I read as part of my 2011 Short Story Reading Project. In one of the stories in particular (“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”) I caught a glimpse of his brilliance. I already had him tagged for additional reading, but when Bellezza gushed about him, I couldn’t help myself and he jumped to the top of my TBR list.

I’m about 320 pages into it thus far (of 1040 pages on my Nook reader) and have really been enjoying it. It’s quite unlike anything else read recently. I mean how would you react to this situation: You begin to notice some subtle differences in the world around you. It’s the same world you’ve always known but it becomes more and more clear that something has changed, and that everyone else remembers certain things a little differently than you do. This is what one of the two main characters, Aomame, encounters in the early chapters of the book, which is thus far being told from two viewpoints, her’s and the writer, Tengo’s, who are linked by a “minor” (well, not to Aomame) encounter when they were schoolchildren. They are also (at this point in my reading) on a collision course due to events happening in this slightly changed world of 1Q84 (not 1984, where the novel begins).

I’ve had a lot of stuff that I was supposed to get done this weekend, but instead my time has been hijacked by this novel. It’s somewhat sexually graphic at points, but as long as that isn’t something that “bothers” you, you might want to look into this book as well. I’m possibly being premature, but it will likely be one of the contenders for my favorite book of 2011. Stay tuned…

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