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