Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) – Haruki MURAKAMI

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, is being released in English translation later this year, and I’m quite keen to read it. As such, I’m trying to catch up on some of his older stuff, since I’m woefully under-read when it comes to the most famous contemporary Japanese novelist. Sputnik Sweetheart is a shorter Murakami novel, which appeals to me, partly because it’s term time, and I don’t want a giant brick of a novel, and partially because Murakami’s big novels tend to leave me cold.

K and Sumire are friends from university, though Sumire never finished her degree. Drifting through life, unsure of what she really wants to do other than be a famous writer, she meets Miu at a wedding, and suddenly realises she is in love. With another woman. Willing to do anything this woman wants, she travels with her to Europe on a business trip, ending up on a small Greek island. It is not until K receives a call from Miu late one night that he realises what a mistake this might have been.

Taking his characters out of Japan seems like a good idea. There’s something to be said for Murakami’s preoccupation with people being sidelined from mainstream Japanese society, but to have them then be sidelined from other parts of the world, too, reveals a much deeper sense of isolation and loneliness than simply being a social misfit in a far too rigid social structure. Rather than simply being another of Murakami’s lonely, quirky Japanese women, Sumire begins to take on a deeper level – Miu’s rejection of her, even on the other side of the world, away from Japanese society, is another realisation that she may never have a true relationship with anyone.

Either I’m reading way too much into this, or perhaps my mind simply works in weird ways, but was I the only one to think that the Greek island they all end up on is Lesbos? Close to the Turkish landmass? Tick. Somewhat undeveloped? Tick. Link to lesbians, all over the world? Tick. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else – it just came to me while I was reading, and I wanted to know what other people thought.

Our narrator, too, will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever read any other Murakami work – a young man, somewhat isolated from the rest of society, unable to fully function. This time, though, he’s a primary school teacher, having an affair with the mother of one of his students. Professional, I know. This, of course, sets up a chance for K to teach the lessons he’s learned from his experienced in Greece (that you will always be lonely in life, and that love is always fleeting) to a young, fatherless child.Perhaps not the best message to be telling small children, though – that you’ll be alone your entire life, and that everyone you ever love will leave you.

There’s a particularly excellent sequence near the end of the novel, where Miu is explaining her reticence when it comes to matters of intimacy. Essentially, she recounts an out of body experience, and watches herself have sex with a man, which understandably makes her uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the whole thing reads like a very uncomfortable rape scene, and Murakami pitches it perfectly. Honestly, you could rip out that chapter and turn it into a short story, and it would be brilliant by itself.

I’ve always thought that Murakami’s short stories are better than his longer novels. Fortunately, Sputnik Sweetheart is perfectly a perfectly formed short novel that manages to bring together all of the tropes we have come to expect from Murakami’s work, while never outstaying its welcome. If you’re inclined to start reading Murakami, perhaps here’s a good place to start – an easing in to his magical realist style, without the baggage of a giant, sprawling novel that has too many characters to keep track of.

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