1 May 2001

Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill)

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has been enjoying a slowly growing English-language readership since the publication here of his magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in 1998. Murakami’s narrators are usually self-professedly ordinary men, who seek little more from life than to sit at the kitchen table listening to jazz and drinking beer. But extraordinary things keep on happening to them: one is inveigled into tracking down an evil sheep that wants to take over the world; another’s wife disappears, and then he finds himself trapped down a dry well.

The narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart is another Murakami everyman, a primary-school teacher known to the reader only as “K”. His best friend, Sumire, is a struggling writer: one of those lovable egotists, she throws Kerouacian poses, and goes everywhere in a second-hand herringbone coat and unnecessary Dizzy Gillespie spectacles. Sumire finds it hard to finish anything she writes, and is mystified by the phenomenon of sexual desire, an urge she has never felt. Despite this, and her habit of placing discursive telephone calls from the park at 4am, K is in love with her.

But then Sumire meets Miu, a woman 17 years older than her, and falls desperately in love. Miu trades wine and organises concerts in Europe, and employs Sumire to help her. The young woman appears to be blossoming and growing up, which at once pleases and saddens K. Then one day, K receives a telephone call from Miu, who has been holidaying with Sumire on a small Greek island. It seems Sumire has disappeared. An investigation begins.

As always, Murakami’s writing alternates whimsy with deliberately quotidian description. A man is said to have such a lovely nose that people are “moved by its beauty”. K, meanwhile, treats us to the minutiae of his daily life: anchovy pizzas, beers, videotaped football matches. Such careful grounding in concrete details is the necessary precursor to the mysterious events of the novel’s oneiric second half, with its hints of doppelgängers and parallel universes.

The faux-naif quality of the writing, with its economical dramatisation of the confused emotions of arrested adolescence, does not prevent Murakami from indulging in a few metafictional tricks. In one example, a document by Sumire reminds her readers that it is dangerous to include dreams in fiction unless the writer is extremely talented — Murakami himself has been doing just that, to unusually powerful effect, for years. We also notice that K reads Conrad on his flight to Greece, and are perhaps meant also to be reminded, by his laconic naming, of Kafka, whose nightmarish logic bears a family resemblance to that of Murakami. As it darkens in its latter half, Sputnik Sweetheart paints some arrestingly disturbing images, including one alarming scene at a funfair, and a strange awakening by phantom music.

An academic reviewing Murakami’s last translated work, the non-fiction book Underground, made a slighting reference to his fiction as “fantastical”. It would seem odd to use that epithet as a casually dismissive gesture of disapprobation, unless one were also willing to criticise, say, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or The Winter’s Tale or Gulliver’s Travels on the same grounds. There is surely room in literature for more than social realism. There is perhaps more to consider, as K points out in this novel, than “the wilderness of a somewhat humourless reality”. For Murakami employs his surrealism to a humanist end. His gift is to articulate and interrogate a peculiarly contemporary sense of melancholy. With stripped-down literary tools and an almost weightless style, he imbues everyday anomie and longing with a uniquely modern poetry.

Fans of Murakami will want to know if this book is his next major novel: for all its modest beauties, it is not. In keeping with its move away from Murakami’s usual jazz towards classical music as narrative decoration, one might best describe it as a modest chamber piece, flexing the creative muscles between the symphonies of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Norwegian Wood and whatever might come next. Nevertheless, the gossamer surface of Sputnik Sweetheart, as with all his novels, gives way to a memory of the work that resonates and deepens long after it has finished.