Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
Book: Sputnik Sweetheart
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Philip Gabriel
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Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami, (born in 1949) is a best-selling Japanese writer. He is a novelist, short story writer, essayist whose works are translated into 50 languages. He received many awards and applauds. he is famous for his surrealistic interplay of characters and emotions. Magic realism is one of his unique and distinct features of writing.
Murakami’s first novel was Hear the Wind Sing (1979). A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), became his first major international success. His other notable works are: Pinball, Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Dance, Dance, Dance, After Dark, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84 etc.
Introduction to Sputnik Sweetheart:
Like Norwegian Wood, this novel by Murakami is also cobbled with Tangled emotions of love and passion and search. And most surprisingly or languidly both the novels end with the phone calls as if connecting the threads of the human psyche and external stimuli.
Haruki Murakami’s novel Sputnik Sweetheart was published in Japan in 1999. The English translation by Philip Gabriel was published in 2001.
Before writing any review it is my general trend to jot down the storyline first and then the characters. But in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart the characters are needed to be introduced first for a better understanding of the story.
1. The narrator:
It’s time to say a few words about myself. Of course, this story is about Sumire, not me. Still, I’m the one whose eyes the story is told through—the tale of who Sumire is and what she did—and I should explain a little about the narrator. Me, in other words.
The novel is narrated from the perspective of K. K is a school teacher of 25 years who is in love with Sumire whom he describes throughout the novel. Though his love is unrequited his silent adoration and support never tilted for that.
He started college and lived by himself in a small apartment. His home was in Tsudanuma but he hardly ever had a heart-to-heart conversation with his family.
“We lived together under one roof, but my parents and sister were like strangers to me, and I had no idea what they wanted from life. And the same held true for them—they didn’t have any idea what kind of person I was or what I aspired to.”
He was a carefree guy who did not possess a high ambition in his life. In his leisure time, he used to read novels and play football.
Though he could not express his love for her, their friendship was unbeatable. He didn’t hide his affairs from Sumire. But the most confusing part of it was his affairs with women who were older and married or had fiancés or steady boyfriends. His most recent partner was the mother of one of my pupils.
In Japan Sumire means ‘Violet’. In her life, till she met Miu, her only passion was to be a novelist. ” Her resolve was a regular rock of Gibraltar. Nothing could come between her and her faith in literature.” She and K were college friends. But while K proceeds in his academics Sumire left college to fully involve herself in her passion. She feels that staying longer in that course means just a waste of time with the second rate specimens, the students. But despite all these K was her staunch supporter and lover. He loves and admires her unconditionally, her habit of incessant talking in a familiar subject or not talking at all, smoking too much. She was born and raised in Japan and studied at a music academy in France. She was well efficient in Japanese, English and French.
Miu is an ethnic Korean businesswoman whom Sumire met at her cousin’s wedding reception. Miu was her cousin’s piano teacher. After their first meeting, they got attracted to each other and got seriously involved. Sumire adored her as her ‘Sputnik Sweetheart.’Miu asked Sumire to join her on business tours. Like Sumire, we are introduced to Miu from the perspective of the narrator.
“What I liked most about Miu was that she didn’t try to hide her age. According to Sumire, she must be 38 or 39. And indeed she looked that age. With her slim, tight figure, a little make-up and she’d easily pass for late twenties. But she didn’t make the effort. Miu let age naturally rise to the surface, accepted it for what it was, and made her peace with it.”
1. Sumire’s one and only ambition:
Sumire is a different type of girl who is quite unearthly in her single passion and aspiration to become a novelist. The point in which Sumire and K carried a mutual passion was their love for reading:
“Sumire and I were very alike. Devouring books came as naturally to us as breathing. Every spare moment we’d settle down in some quiet corner, endlessly turning page after page. Japanese novels, foreign novels, new works, classics, avant-garde to bestseller—as long as there was something intellectually stimulating in a book, we’d read it. We’d hang out in libraries, spend whole days browsing in Kanda, the second-hand bookshop Mecca in Tokyo. I’d never come across anyone else who read so avidly—so deeply, so widely, as Sumire, and I’m sure she felt the same.”
As an aspiring novelist, Sumire never faced any block, rather she used to write whatever came to her mind, and of course, she wrote more than necessary.
2. The early life of Sumire:
Sumire was born in Chigasaki. Her father ran a dental clinic in Yokohama. Her mother died from a congenital heart defect at the age of 31 when Sumire was a little kid, below the age of three. In her desperate search for the memory of her mother, she could only feel the vague scent of her skin. Sometimes she tried to make a frame of her mother out of the information provided by her father but except for her good memory and handwriting, her father could not provide any concrete information about her dead mother. But “Sumire was determined to brand her mother’s face on her memory.”
When she was six her father remarried. Her new mom was very good and kind to her. She even spoke in her defence to provide her stipend when she left college to be a novelist. Her life relied on that little stipend and encouragement and support from her friend and silent lover K.
3. K’s Admiration and Love for Sumire:
K never admires Sumire for her feminine beauty as she had none.
” Sumire was not exactly a beauty. Her cheeks were sunken, her mouth a little too wide. Her nose was on the small side and upturned.”
But “she had an expressive face and a great sense of humour.”
” I never knew her to use lipstick or eyebrow pencil, and I have my doubts that she even knew bras came in different sizes. Still, Sumire had something special about her, something that drew people to her.”
But Sumire was too focused on becoming a novelist to fall in love or make a boyfriend except when she met Miu.
K knew and understood Sumire so deeply that no one could be. Even then he could not open his mind to her.
” I tried to tell her how I felt, but somehow the feelings and the right words couldn’t connect.”
Even he feared that if he confessed she might laugh at him. Even he had relations with other girls he thought about Sumire. But whenever Sumire finished her drafts it was K whom she used to meet and show them. And obviously, he was proud of that.
“On weekends, Sumire would come over to my apartment, drafts of her novels spilling out of her arms-the licky manuscripts that had escaped the massacre. Still, they made quite a pile. Sumire would shoe her manuscripts to only one person in the world world. Me.”
He gave special emphasis on the word “me”.
4. Sumire falls in love with Miu:
Her devotion to her ambition to be a writer came to a halt at her 22 years in the Spring season suddenly as she fell in love with Miu, a businesses woman and 17 years older than Sumire.
” An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains- flattening, everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits.”
The root and instigation behind Sumire’s love for Miu is not so clear to me. But when they met the first time they talk about Kerouac’s novels. For every month Sumire chose her idol writer. And on that Spring it was Kerouac. She always carried a dog-eared copy of one of his books- On the Road or Lonesome Traveller in her coat pocket. She was extremely enthusiastic when Miu engaged with her loving topic. She wished to be like a character in Kerouac’s novels – ‘wild, cool, dissolute.’
Sumire and Miu met at a wedding reception of Sumire’s cousin in a posh hotel in Akasaka. Miu attended the wedding being the piano teacher of Sumire’s cousin.
“In the instant, Miu touched her hair, Sumire fell in love as if she were crossing a field when bang! a bolt of lightning zapped her right in the head. Something like an artistic revelation. Which is why, at that point, it didn’t matter to Sumire that the person she fell in love with happened to be a woman.”
Miu was a businesswoman whose main job was to travel and deal with the lands. As she was preparing to visit Italy she took Sumire with her. Sumire was “surprisingly capable and took care of lots of details for me. Buying tickets, making hotel reservations, negotiating prices, keeping expense records, searching out good local restaurants”.
Sumire was her sputnik friend, travel companion. Sumire and Miu visited many places and in the course, they met various types of people. Miu spent her time in business dealings and meeting old acquaintances. Sumire used to read the papers and wrote on her own. With Miu, Sumire went to spend a vacation on an island in Greece. But mysteriously she vanished from there. Helpless Miu called K to come there.
But one day in a frenzy, Sumire tried to make love to Miu and something broke the cord, placing an iceberg between them. Sumire desired more from her. Her desire to involve in physical intimacy with Miu led to some critical situations and the sudden vanish of Sumire.
“I remember very well the first time we met and we talked about Sputniks. She was talking about Beatnik writers, and I mistook the word and said ‘Sputnik’. We laughed about it, and that broke the ice. Do you know what ‘Sputnik’ means in Russian? ‘Travelling companion’. I looked it up in a dictionary not long ago. Kind of a strange coincidence if you think about it. I wonder why the Russians gave their satellite that strange name. It’s just a poor little lump of metal, spinning around the Earth.”
5. Miu confessed to K after the departure of Sumire:
“I’ve never had a homosexual experience, and never considered I had those tendencies. But if that’s what Sumire really wanted, I thought I could oblige. At least I didn’t find it disgusting. As long as it was with Sumire, that is. So I didn’t resist when she started feeling me all over, or when she stuck her tongue inside my mouth. It felt strange, but I tried to get used to it. I let her do what she wanted. I like Sumire, and if it made her happy, I didn’t mind what she did.”
“But my body and my mind are two different things. A part of me was happy that Sumire was caressing me so lovingly. But no matter how happy my mind was, my body resisted. It wouldn’t yield to her. My heart and my head were aroused, but the rest of me was like a hard, dry stone. It’s sad, but I couldn’t help it.”
They informed local police. Miu called the embassy in Athens. The embassy contacted Sumire’s parents.
K searched Sumire’s laptop and except for two documents- Document-1 and Document-2 he found nothing.
With hope, K came back to his work. He believed that Sumire was alive and hidden somewhere one day she would return.
Finally, Sumire came back to the world where she belonged one day….with all the familiar road maps and the ‘good old faithful telephone box’ stuffed with the ads of phony loan companies. And she called K, they both felt desperate to see and meet each other.
“I really need you. You’re a part of me; I’m a part of you.”
And Sumire told him to come and take her. K felt “I’m ready. I can go anywhere.”
But he showed no hurry, no excitement. He opened his window and watched the mouldy-coloured half-moon hanging in the sky that Sumire narrated him from the telephone booth.
He realised, ” We’re both looking at the same moon, in the same world. We’re connected to reality by the same line. All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me.”
But I don’t understand the finishing speech of K and its relevance to the context.
“I spread my fingers apart and stare at the palms of both hands, looking for bloodstains. There aren’t any. No scent of blood, no stiffness. The blood must have already, in its silent way, seeped inside.”
The image of blood comes here without any preview and it makes me dumb to interpret it in any of the Murakamian styles I know so far. After the hope, it is like an ominous sign or murder…of Sumire or K himself…I don’t know.
6. The Ending:
The book ends with Murakami’s usual style where the readers are left in abysmal contemplation….no answer to all the questions gathered throughout the novel but more ambiguity, more puzzles and more restlessness.
Again the ending of the novel was too arbitrary and out of tune. The broad bleak canvass upon which the story is set suddenly comes to a halt abruptly. The theme of loneliness, abandonment, misinterpretation all of a sudden spoil the game with Sumire’s emergence from nowhere and calling to K from the familiar telephone booth as if the pages between them were nothing, just some mirage, illusion, imagination on the part of the reader or the narrator. Even the lunar imagery cannot hold the flimsy structure of a ramshackle ending that leads to the blood theme without any plausible interpretation.
Significance of the Name of the Novel:
‘Sputnik’ is the name of the world’s first man-made satellite that was launched in 1957 on 4th October by the Soviet Union.
When Miu vaguely remembered Kerouac she asked,” Kerouac…hmm…Wasn’t he a Sputnik?” Sumire got confused at this as Kerouac was an American novelist with no relation with the Russian space satellite.
Actually, Miu meant a literary movement, “Beatnik”, but she mispronounced it.
“ Beatnik,- Sputnik. I never can remember those kinds of terms”, was her honest confession.
From that day Sumire started adoring Miu as “Sputnik Sweetheart”.
“She loved the sound of it. It made her think of Laika, the dog. The man-made satellite, streaking soundlessly across the blackness of outer space. The dark, lustrous eyes of the dog, gazing out of the tiny window. In the infinite loneliness of space, what could Laika possibly be looking at?”
In reality, Miu, Sumire, K, all were like that sputnik satellite…orbiting one another but ultimately alone.
Murakami always exceeds his excellence in superseding the symbolic panorama.
Miu’s white hair, after watching a paranoid evil incident reflects her incomplete self, her split personality, her confusion.
The lunar imagery ‘mouldy-coloured half-moon hanging in the sky’ stirs hope and love in the mind of readers.
The sputnik, ist Russian space satellite is symbolic of human alienation and obsession. We all are obsessed with the morphine of love but we are alone to the core of our existence. Whatever we do or perceive as reality is nothing but an ephemeral wisp of greater realism.
“Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.”
“Did you ever see anyone shot by a gun without bleeding?”
“The Barber Won’t Be Digging Any More Holes”
To be honest I like the narrative, language, use of intrinsic metaphors and the exquisite interplay of the shadows and light of human character but not the story. I’m lost, totally about the story. I cannot relate to it or wish to be. That’s why I cannot be attached to the novel.
Anyway, I am fascinated with the concept of ‘sputnik sweetheart’ we all are like that satellite, revolving in the dark abyss of space alone. Desires of closeness just make us feel more lonely.
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