48 – ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ by Haruki Murakami

As any regular Murakami reader knows, the Japanese author likes to alternate between slightly odd short stories, big mind-boggling novels, and short novels which, in their own way, are just as nutty as the rest of his writing. ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’, at 220-something pages, falls into the last category and, like most Murakami works, sucks the reader in with a perfect description of the everyday before blind-siding them with something a little more, shall we say, bizarre.

The narrator of the story, K. (another hint of Murakami’s love of Kafka), is in love with an ex-college friend, Sumire, who in turn is in love with her new boss, Miu, who isn’t in love with anyone, not even her husband, because of a strange event in her life fourteen years ago. After Sumire flies off to Europe on a business trip with Miu, K. gets on with his life, as most Murakami male protagonists do, with classical music, simple home cooking, enjoyable but meaningless affairs and the odd drink too. Then he gets a phone call from Europe, and everything comes crashing down…

The central premise may seem like an ordinary love triangle, but the writer turns it into something more. The three main characters are all loners who have trouble defining their identity, and the relationships they enjoy with each other are a way to start to understand what they want. K. serves as a sounding board for Sumire’s constant inquisitiveness, and Sumire helps to get K. to see things from another’s point of view, something he’s not always very good at doing by himself. When Miu comes along, Sumire is instantly smitten and temporarily abandons her bohemian lifestyle and attempts to become a writer, following Miu to see where the trail will lead.

The connections the three characters have are strong, yet it is always clear that they are ultimately temporary, likely to end soon, and this is one of the writer’s key points. In life, people are very much like satellites; while we may occasionally cross paths and accompany each other for a while, we are all alone in the end, trying to understand who exactly we are. When we do meet a kindred spirit, it can be earth shattering and life changing, and it’s very easy, especially when we’re young, to think that the current situation will go on forever, sometimes leading you to take a once-in-a-lifetime experience for granted. As K. and Miu find out, it rarely does. Like the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…

Of course, with Murakami, it’s never quite as simple as all that. On top of the nostalgia of lost relationships, ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ also deals with a more sinister side of the search for identity. Each of the three central characters experiences a moment where the line between the real world and the imaginary world is blurred, a dangerous time where, if you don’t take care, you may end up on the wrong side of the line when the gap closes. Miu’s experience on the ferris wheel (the essence of which scene Dan Holloway says he has spent his last two books trying to capture), whether a supernatural moment or a painful psychological projection of self during an unwanted sexual encounter, leaves her empty, broken, unable to function in the real world any more. K., rather more down-to-earth than the others, manages to avoid falling across the line, but is left wondering why he bothered. As for Sumire, well, we’ll probably never know.

This book reminds me a little in its themes of ‘Norwegian Wood’, even if that book is a little more rose-coloured in its portrayal of relationships past (well, vaguely rose-coloured; Murakami is never happy-happy, joy-joy). Most of us can remember times in the past, at school or university, where we met someone with similar interests to us for the first time, and everything just clicked. Many of us are still wondering where that relationship went wrong. Murakami tells us in this book that it’s normal for these relationships to fizzle out and for friends to go their separate ways; the satellites cross paths, communicate briefly, then continue their different lonely paths around the earth.

20 thoughts on “48 – ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ by Haruki Murakami

  1. Tony, sorry it's taken me so long to get here. You know this is my favourite novel (and I'm flattered at the mention). I think you have the one thing that disappointed me absolutely spot on – I really wanted to have some resolution to Sumire. Throughout the passage on teh isalnd I kept thinking we were going to find her in the monastery (for some reason I had images of teh French Leutenant's Woman in my head). It's that lack of resolution I've taken into The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes, which means everyone WILL find out what happened to Emma.The rest of the book is just so "true" in a way that only magic realism can really be true.

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  2. I like this book, but, in some ways, I think it's a lesser version of 'Norwegian Wood'. There are several parallels (including the phone call at the end), and the more realistic novel (in my opinion) wins out over the magical realism version.

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  3. It's an interesting one. I've noticed on the Facebook forum a lot of people really dislike the more recent, shorter books (After Dark being the exception, which everyone seems to love). I prefer them in many ways – I think some of the longer books, especially Wind-up bird with the interminable Lt Mamiya letters, get into a little bit of a tangle sometimes, and lose their focus because he takes too much on. There's a real stripped-down unity about Sputnik and South of the Border.

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  4. I'm not sure I'd agree with you; I've seen a lot of negative comments about 'After Dark'! 'South of the Border…' is my least favourite of the Murakami novels, probably because he tries (and fails miserably) to justify adultery (for the same reason 'Anna Karenina' and 'Madame Bovary' are high on my list of over-rated books!).I think the attraction of the longer books is the desire to be lost in a good book (with apologies to Jasper Fforde). I read fairly quickly, so works like 'After Dark' are more like 'After Eights' than the literary feast I'm looking for. Also, if I'm going to pay for a book (and I buy virtually all my books), I want value for money; on that count, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' beats 'After Dark' any day!

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  5. I love your opening paragraph…it is just a perfect of what that genius, Murakami, does with his writing. What an author! I doubt few can compare in our present day. I'm only 60 pages into The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as I write, and I'm taking it very slowly so as not to miss a nuance (or, clue!). I'm glad you posted this, Tony, even though it was before the challenge officially started. Rules, made to be broken, right? I think so.

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  6. Definitely! Plus I'm never slow at giving people another chance to have a look at my reviews ;)Unfortunately, until '1Q84' has been translated, I'm out of Murakami novels to read for the first time. I've only read the short story collections once each though, so I may buy those at some point. When (for the fiftieth time this week) I get time…

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  7. Your review of this book is making me itch to read it! The only fiction that I've read of Murakami's is Dance Dance Dance, and that book got me hooked! Straightaway I knew Murakami was the kind of author I'd like.

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  8. Yes, that opening paragraph is a great summation of Murakami's genius. I read Sputnik Sweetheart earlier this year and really enjoyed it. Interestingly I also read his short story "Man-Eating Cats" online, which is more or less the middle section from the novel (I can't seem to post a link but you could google it).How frustrating to be out of Murakami novels to read! That reminds me why I stockpile novels of some favourite authors and ration them out over time; at least Murakami is still writing and there is more to look forward to.

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  9. Sadly, it usually takes a few years for the translations to come out, so I'm expecting the latest one to appear in an English-language format some time in 2012…And Murakami-san actually has a habit of turning short stories into novels; both 'Norwegian Wood' and 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' started out this way!

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  10. "I think the attraction of the longer books is the desire to be lost in a good book (with apologies to Jasper Fforde). I read fairly quickly, so works like 'After Dark' are more like 'After Eights' than the literary feast I'm looking for. Also, if I'm going to pay for a book (and I buy virtually all my books), I want value for money; on that count, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' beats 'After Dark' any day!"This is a very good point for me. I love to get lost in a giant book. I also buy almost all my own books but for a few gifts on My birthday, Christmas or Father's Day and where I live there are no public libraries. So far for the Japanese Challenge I have read one short work, After Dark and am thirty pages into another one "Goodbye Tsugumi" by Banana Yoshimoto which I already love. I think I will be ready to read a larger one next. Thanks for the inspiring review.

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  11. No worries, Mel! I think everyone needs to alternate between books, in length, nationality and perhaps style too. You can't read ten monster classics in a row, and you can't spend a whole month reading novellas; just like the food pyramid, you need a healthy balance!

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  12. This is one I really want to read, but I'm promising myself I'll finish the other Murakami stuff I have waiting before I pick up this. I was reminded of Sputnik Sweetheart while watching Paris, I love you the other day (its in one of the scenes) and I once again got a hankerin' to pick it up!

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  13. Good to read, like all Murakami, and definitely evocative of summers spent in Europe (here in Australia, I'm still waiting for summer…).

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  14. I loved that when I read it (I actually ended up going through that book and the Trilogy of the Rat backwards as that was the order I got them in!).

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  15. Thank you! (blushing).I don't know why, but this review seems to have touched a chord with a lot of people, something I'm very happy about.One curious thing about this post though is that the whole time I was writing it, the song by the English group Doves ('Satellites') kept going round and round in my head, and with so many people commenting on this review, it keeps coming back (not that that's a bad thing…).

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  16. It's so nice to read all the comments here because there is such a wealth of information about Murakami and his writing style! I entered the Japanese Literature challenge to step out of the box a little and am blown away by the simplicity of the stories and then the blow from behind while I wasn't paying attention! I have 3 Murakami books on my TBR list, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle being the first one I'm tackling. This book sounds interesting and Tony, the review was great! My first baby step into the challenge was Be With Me by Takuji Ichikawa, which I thoroughly enjoyed- especially the ending….Suzanne

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  17. Thanks, Suzanne!My next review will be more Murakami (it was going to be 'The Housekeeper and the Professor', but I'm STILL waiting for my copy to arrive!).I do read non-Japanese books too though; just look at my blog if you don't believe me 😉

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