Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) is the ninth of Murakami’s 15 novels/novellas, coming 20 years after the first, when the author was about 50. And at the height of his powers? I’m not sure. This is certainly not one of my favourites. I like the first three – Hear the Wind Sing (1979), Pinball (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) for their grungieness; and I like the later novels – After Dark (2004) and 1Q84 (2010) for their flights of fancy. Indeed they are probably my favourites.

I’m in no way an expert on Murakami, indeed I came to him late, and in particular I have not read the five novels between A Wild Sheep Chase and Sputnik Sweetheart. Still, the impression I get is that Murakami in this novel was building up to an idea (or ideas) of parallel worlds which he handled much better in later works.

I can barely write “parallel worlds” without thinking/writing “therefore Science Fiction”. Certainly, if Atwood wrote or implied “parallel worlds” (which is all Murakami does) I wouldn’t hesitate. But Atwood writes from firmly within the traditions of English Lit. and Murakami doesn’t. If he fits anywhere well it is within European Surrealism, though of course SF has always had its own surrealist stream. But what streams exist within Japanese Lit, I can only guess.

Lit Professor and blogger Jessica Schad Manuel says (I think !) that Murakami is rendering the products of the unconscious real. Certainly, many aspects of his later fiction work like dreams. What I am saying is that they are not alternative environments for exploring human behaviour, which is how I think of SF.

Sputnik Satellite is dry, and although the character Sumire seems to have slipped out of this world, it has none of the poetry and dreaminess of After Dark. The narrator K is a (male) school teacher whose one divergence from conformity is his platonic friendship with Sumire, a struggling writer

Sumire wanted to be like a character in a Kerouac novel – wild, cool, dissolute. She’d stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-framed Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which she wore despite her 20/20 vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herringbone coat from a second-hand shop and a pair of rough work boots.

K is in love with Sumire, though she would laugh at him if he said so, and so he sleeps with other women, with the mother of one of his students eventually. K and Sumire have flats in different parts of, I presume, Tokoyo – I miss being able to follow the geography, both for its own sake and for the class clues that are there when a writer uses as his location a city you know well. Sumire’s flat is tiny and full of books, so mostly she comes round to his place and he cooks her meals, which she often forgets to do for herself.

She writes and writes, beginnings of novels, ends of novels, parts of novels, but never beginning, middle, end. Scraps most and brings what’s left to K to read. “My head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about.” But somehow she is unable to infuse her scenes with a life that brings them all together.

Sumire meets Mui, a rich, older woman, a wine importer, at a wedding reception and is invited by her to dinner. When Sumire later phones K in the middle of the night, from the phonebox in the street outside her flat, it is to tell him she’s in love and can she come round.

Suumire arrived at my apartment a little before five… Her hair was short in a stylish cut … She wore a light cardigan over a short-sleeve navy blue dress and a pair of enamel, medium-high heels. She even had stockings on

Mui has told her that she, Sumire, is not ready to be a novelist yet, and has offered her a job as her assistant. If I haven’t made it clear, Sumire is in love with Mui, who maybe realises, but does not want/is unable to get physical.

The story potters along, told in K’s dry school teacher style. Sumire does her job, polishes up her languages, reads. Her writing dries up. K helps her to move to another suburb further away, closer to her job. Then he gets a long letter from Rome. Mui and Sumire are in Europe on a business trip. Shorter letters follow as the travellers visit vineyards and attend concerts around Italy and France. In the last, a guy they have met over dinner tells them he has a house on a Greek island and they would be doing him a favour if they stayed in it for a while. I should meet this guy.

A little later K gets a phone call from Mui. She’s on the Greek island. Sumire has disappeared. Will he come. He’s in the last two weeks of summer break. He flies to Greece, makes his way to the island.

We’re at p.90 of 230. For the remainder of the novel K searches the island without success, returns to Tokyo (sleeps with his student’s mother). Sumire has vanished without trace. Murakami manages to imply that Sumire is both gone and not gone. That is his genius. As I said, not my favourite Murakami, but definitely worth reading.


Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart, first pub. 1999. English translation, Penguin, London, 2001 by Philip Gabriel. 229pp

My other reviews:
Wind/Pinball (here)
After Dark (here)

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa

‘Research’ indicates Yoko Ogawa (1962- ) must be one of Japan’s most accomplished writers. Until I picked this book up I hadn’t heard of her, though quite a number of you obviously had, from your comments when you saw I was reading it, no doubt from its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker.

Wikipedia says Ogawa “has published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction” only some of which have been translated into English (9 maybe). I’m most impressed by her co-writing An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, which sadly doesn’t seem to be one of the ones translated.

My first impression of The Memory Police was that it was both slow and dry, and it may have taken me till halfway to get over that. By the end I was entranced.

Is it Science Fiction? Most of the reviews say it is, and I have very little (ok, no) knowledge of the SF tradition in Japan. It is certainly SF in the way that Murakami is SF; which is to say surreal rather than sciencey. One reviewer draws parallels with 1984 and Brave New World. I guess the Memory Police of the title are a bit Brave New World-ish, but for me the dystopian element was minor.

The basis of the story is that a young woman writer living on one of Japan’s lesser islands, in a small village on the coast, a bus and train ride from the regional centre, is writing a novel about a young woman. We see excerpts from that novel, they are not labelled but are in slightly different type – Courier rather than Times, maybe, and I didn’t pick them up straight away.

The story of the novel we are reading is that things are disappearing, that most people quickly forget what it is that has disappeared, and that those who cannot forget are rounded up and interned by the Memory Police.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. … It took patience to figure out what was gone.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast … I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything.

The young woman’s father, an ornithologist, has died. Her mother, a sculptor, is one of those who don’t forget, she shows the then little girl keepsakes, relics long gone, but then she too is gone, or taken by the Police. Her old nanny dies, and so she is alone in the house, her only friend the old man, the nanny’s husband, who lives in a boat stranded on the beach. A ferryman whose ferry has disappeared.

The story of the novel being written is that a girl is in a class learning to type. Lessons are in a church with a clock tower. She becomes the lover of the young man teaching them. Her voice goes away and she can only speak to him by typing. And then the typewriter seizes up. Her lover takes her up to the room behind the clock, a room full of broken, seized typewriters …

A family, friends of the young woman writer’s parents, are rememberers. They come to her, bringing some of her mother’s sculptures, on their way into hiding.

The editor, R, who is working with her on her novel, also remembers. The old man proposes that they hide him, that she hides him, in a space below her study floor. R comes, leaving behind a wife and baby. Every night she brings him food and pages from her writing. They discuss what has disappeared. Her tries to convince her of the importance of remembering even a small part of what has been lost. Of course she is all he sees and they become close.

Then novels disappear. She gives R her manuscript, which already has no meaning for her, and some books selected almost at random. The townsfolk gather to burn books in great bonfires which burn all night. The library itself is torched.

I followed the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air – and suddenly I realized that long ago, I had stood at this same window with my father and looked out at a similar sight… “A bird.” I remembered. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving nothing behind but the burning night.

Now she cannot write. But R persuades her to keep trying, to write a word, a line, a sentence.

Disappearances continue. Her novel comes to an end. This novel comes to an end.


Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, first pub. 1994. Translated from the original Japanese, Stephen Snyder, Vintage, London, 2019. 274pp

An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura

Why did I pick up/purchase – with my birthday gift voucher – this book? Because it was shelved next to Murakami? Well, that is how I came to see it; because it looked exotic, maybe; because I responded to the advertising on the back cover –

Minae Mizumura is one of Japan’s most respected novelists, acclaimed for her audacious experimentation and skillful storytelling

probably; because it brought to mind Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, which I very much enjoyed, definitely.

An I-Novel was originally published in 1995 under the title Shishōsetsu from left to right. The word shishōsetsu designates a confessional autobiographical genre – the I-novel – that has played a key role in modern Japanese literature. The original, based on the author’s experiences growing up in the United States and Japan, freely mixes natural American English with Japanese.

Translator’s note

According to Wikipedia “the first I-novels are believed to be The Broken Commandment, written in 1906 by Tōson Shimazaki, and Futon (The Quilt) written by Katai Tayama in 1907.”

At the time the novel is set, the 1990s, Minae, in her thirties, and her sister Nanae, two years older, have been living in the US, in and around New York and various university towns, since they were 10 and 12, when their father’s work as a manager for a Japanese company took him there and he subsequently transitioned to “local hire”. Much of the novel consists of Minae and Nanae talking, on the phone, in Japanese, but quite often using American expressions, which are rendered in a different typeface.

“Right? Mother could dress up all she liked to go to the Metropolitan Opera, and for all we knew the whole time people were looking at her and thinking, Oh dear, here’s another Oriental, ruining the atmosphere.” I opened my mouth to speak, but Nanae went on, “How would that woman know the first thing about opera? …”

Mizumura collaborated on the translation, but it is necessarily different from the original as we have much less Japanese than the Japanese have English. If you look at the page from the Japanese edition below, you’ll see that the original was more or less 50/50.. What I haven’t shown is that every now and then there is a black and white illustration, full page, with a cryptic caption – ‘University campus’, ‘Suburban house’, and so on. A Japanese thing?

Page from the original Japanese edition. You can see that the Japanese ideographs are a mixture of kanji (dense) and hiragana which apparently is phonetic. (Minae is speaking to Big Mac, an American who lectures in Japanese).

… other times I wrote a mixture of kanji and hiragana. [gives examples] The rounded soft loveliness of hiragana was like the shape of a beautiful woman now reaching up, now bending down as she went about her work in the home.

My experience of Japanese in literature is limited to early William Gibson, Murakami and Sayaka Murata (Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings), all of whom have a certain edginess. Minae Mizumura on the other hand, for all the experimentation in her writing, is decidedly middle class, in her life, in her attitudes. So at one level this is the story of a studious, relatively lonely girl at school; never fully engaging with life in the US, reading all the Japanese classics at home; always planning to return to a Japan which seems less familiar each time she visits; moving on to college and then to grad school and working in a less than motivated fashion towards a PhD in … French!

She has various, mostly Japanese boyfriends, but even the most recent and most constant has returned to begin ascending the corporate ladder back home; and she is left with university life (she’s at an unnamed Ivy League university outside New York) which she avoids; her sister on the end of a telephone, at a time when long distance calls cost money, from her artist’s loft in SoHo; her mother run off with a younger man to Singapore; and her father in a home on Long Island, declining into senility.

And she finds that she, the youngest, has ended up head of the family.

Nanae is superficially more rebellious, wearing bright clothes, short skirts, coloured hair, becoming promiscuous, taking up sculpture. But as they talk and talk and talk Minae becomes aware that Nanae is, like her, both unhappy and dreaming of a return to life in Japan.

However, it is the other side of this work which makes it especially interesting – the discussions of writing in Japanese and English; Minae’s life-long engagement with the Japanese canon; elements of Japanese writing that an outsider can only suspect: the conflict between duty and feeling (giri and ninjō) – she references (Japanese author) Sōseki; the traditions of the I-novel, which in English may be considered autofiction, but which may also contain elements of “aspects of society”.

Aspects of society indeed. Minae and Nanae work their way down to what it is that makes America so uncomfortable for them, and the answer is, as it always is, race. The Japanese see themselves as special, but Americans are unable to distinguish them from Koreans or Chinese, they are ‘Oriental’ and in the end, they are ‘colored’.

Shouldn’t Japanese people at least be aware of what the West thought of us historically – as much as the West had ever bothered to think of us in return? Wouldn’t we then no longer be so self-deluded, telling ourselves that we, unlike other Asians, were essentially Western?

It is an interesting aspect of this book that it was written when Japan was at the height of its economic power – as were the William Gibson cyberpunk novels – and that Minae is conscious of this and discusses it. With China now so prominent it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall that there ever was such a time.

Both as a coming of age in a strange land, and as writing about writing, this is a striking work; and yes I enjoyed it and recommend it.


Minae Mizumura, An I-Novel, Columbia University Press, New York, 2021 (first pub. in Japanese, 1995). Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. 325 pp.

August is being is being celebrated by some lit.bloggers as Women in Translation Month. I did a search and came up with this from Scribe (here).

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata


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Convenience Store Woman made a bit of a sensation when the English translation was released a couple of years ago, and what was said about it was sufficiently intriguing that when I saw it in a bookshop the other day I promptly bought it. This is the story, told in the first person, of a woman, Keiko Furukura, who aspires to be ‘normal’, is never sure of the rules, but thinks that she has found a niche where she won’t be noticeable, working in a convenience store, for 18 years from when she was 18 years old.

I’m a bit dubious about writers using the voice of someone ‘on the spectrum’ to query the way unspoken rules govern social interaction, basically by showing us the ridiculousness of ‘working to rule’. But I think Murata has a serious purpose, and carries it out quite well. We of course have to decide whether what the author says about rules in her, Japanese society apply more generally. Clive James in his unlamented TV show mocked Japanese for being different, and it would be interesting to know how much self-mockery the author intended in her description of start-of-shift rituals, practising greetings and sales spiels (and yes, I’ve been a trainee Encyclopedia Britannica door-to-door salesman, and the rituals were not much different).

The novella, charts a month or so in Keiko’s life when she is made to realise that she is not as normal-seeming as she had thought. The catalyst for this realisation is a meeting of her girlfriends, and I must say the most unlikely aspect of this story was that Keiko kept up with her married school friends., and that they chose to keep up with her.

Keiko’s younger sister has given Keiko some stock responses to questions about why she is unmarried, why she continues after all these years in her student job as a part-time convenience store worker. She cites fragile health, but for once a friend’s husband calls bullshit

He stared at me as though I were some kind of alien. “What, you never …? I mean, if finding a job is so hard, then at least you should get married. Look, these days there are always things like online marriage sites, you know,” he spluttered….

The next thing I knew, just like that time in elementary school, they all turned their backs on me and started edging away, staring curiously at me over their shoulders as though contemplating some ghastly life form. Oh, I thought absently, I’ve become a foreign object.

Keiko loves the structured environment of the convenience store. There are rules, rules which she can see the purpose for, there’s a manual for heaven’s sake. She eats to be fit to work. Goes to bed early. Feels the rhythms of the store even when she’s away. She dreams the store. But if her friends had never accepted her ‘normalcy’ then she must try something new.

Her current store manager, store manager #8, has trouble retaining staff. He hires a misfit, Shiraha, a guy about Keiko’s age who should have been a salaryman years ago, who kicks against the rules, comes late, doesn’t restack the shelves with product in orderly rows, complains constantly

“Everyone here is a stupid loser. It’s the same in any convenience store. You’ll only find housewives who can’t get by on their husband’s salary, job-hoppers without plans for the future, and the crappiest students who can’t get better jobs like being a home tutor. Or foreigners who send money home. All losers.”

He wants a wife, a wife with money who will enable him to stay home and set up an on-line business. As is the way with all these jobs, he doesn’t get the sack, he’s just given zero hours. One night Keiko sees him hanging around outside the store and on the spur of the moment she proposes that he come home with her. Her sister, her parents, her friends, her workmates are ecstatic, Keiko is normal after all, she’s living with a guy.

In the one room apartment Keiko and Shiraha barely interact. He sleeps on a futon in the bath – so that they must use the public coin-operated shower – watches movies on his tablet, she feeds him boiled veg and rice. He never goes out and she is mostly at work. He wants her to get a real job. She quits the store!

At uni I studied existentialism, I read lots of Sartre, I regarded myself as a existentialist. Murata seems to me to be asking the question: if we act a role are we in bad faith? Sartre says yes. But I think Murata is saying that Keiko constantly questions the role that she knows she is playing, that is, she is in good faith. Convenience Store Woman starts slowly but quickly becomes a thoughtful, yes sometimes funny, but always rivetting read.


Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman, first pub. in Japanese, 2016. English ed., Granta, London, 2018. Translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Kim at Reading Matters (here) enjoyed it too, for different reasons probably. Melanie at Grab The Lapels (here) was troubled by CSW and found Shiraha’s relationship with Keiko abusive. I think Keiko knowingly used Shiraha, but what would be the fun in always being in agreement.