As a first time reader of Murakami, the overall affect of Sputnik Sweetheart is one of ambiguity and ambivalence. This is a novel that is at once readable yet frustrating, promising but clumsy. Ultimately, this is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details. The Vintage Books copy reviewed here has, on its back cover, a journalist’s line which states: ‘Sputnik Sweetheart has touched me deeper and pushed me further than anything I’ve read in a long time.’ (Julie Myerson, The Guardian) — alas, closer analysis of Murakami’s writing leads to other conclusions.
The plot of Sputnik Sweetheart (Vintage Books, 2002, translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel; originally published by Kodansha Ltd, 1999) involves three main characters: the young, first person narrator (known only as K., a teacher); his friend, Sumire, who he fantasises over; the enigmatic Miu, she who acts as a catalyst for Sumire’s disappearance. Murakami initially draws the characters well enough and Sumire’s somewhat grungy bookishness bodes well in the potential of the pages to come. However, the first seeds of doubt are sown in the reader when it becomes apparent that Murakami either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
The title of the work is, in part, set up via a somewhat contrived conversation when Sumire (in her early twenties) meets Miu, who is in her late thirties. Bookish Sumire expresses her penchant for the writings of Jack Kerouac and Miu manages to confuse the word Sputnik with Beatnik. Kerouac exits the pages following a brief pause on a quote from Lonesome Traveler, his purpose for the most part now spent. Murakami attempts to imbue Sumire as an exponent of being Beat, but even before the plot demands her transformation, Pygmalion style, towards an altogether more becoming young lady in the service of Miu, Murakami seems to have forgotten that Kerouac even walked her way.
Other motifs enter and depart, or return briefly without any great insistence of depth. It is to this depth that the reader is in expectation of reward, but the writing never fully reaches the level it is presumed to be aiming at. Murakami takes a sudden turn, a good way into the book, when he relays the reported story of Miu, earlier in her life, having had an experience of great personal epiphany in which she essentially split into two: we can read this in something akin to magical realism terms or we can read this in the analogy. Murakami doesn’t clarify his writerly intentions and it is this vagueness that we must suppose is the attempted insistence of depth.
Before this episode, the story flows well enough: Sumire, confused at her sexuality, gradually falls for Miu and undergoes her transformation into a more cultured being (though the suggestion in the reading is that the bookish girl is already somewhat open to the finer arts); she agrees to accompany Miu on a business trip to Italy and France (Miu is in the business of importing wine), and the two end up on a small and remote Greek island, in holiday detour mode, following the chance meeting with an extremely sketched and ridiculously stereotyped Englishman who happens to own a rent-free villa there. There are bumps such as this along the way, but on the whole Murakami writes easily enough for superficial comprehension.
It is perhaps indicative of works translated from other languages that English versions are left wanting: I will never know the grammatical nuances of Japanese; however, Sputnik Sweetheart’s English translation is peppered with incomplete sentences. At first these can perhaps be overlooked as something akin to quirky idiosyncrasy; however, the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying. The same can be said for Murakami’s penchant for clumsy similes, which are also often combined with his habit of incomplete sentence writing. He writes, as a new sentence, for example: ‘Like smoke.’
On the Greek island, Sumire disappears. Miu eventually phones K., the narrator, for his help even though she doesn’t know him. Murakami concocts an explanation as to why Miu hadn’t phoned earlier (Sumire had been missing for several days) — the substandard local telephone system — and, later, a reason why Miu hasn’t phoned Sumire’s parents instead. It is all as if Murakami is self-consciously trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on. Indeed, this is even more curious when considering another of Murakami’s neglected motifs: that of writing about writing. The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece (Paul Auster also suffered, more directly, as author-character in The New York Trilogy), and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless. Murakami’s writing is far from faultless: he even has the audacity to have K. instruct Sumire (a would-be writer herself) on another of Murakami’s motifs to float away — the ‘metaphor’ in the story of Chinese gates and bones and fresh dog’s blood. Suffice is to say that there is no god or devil, whatever your flavour, in the detail.
When Sumire disappears from the island, Murakami sets the story up as a form of detective mystery. We settle into the potential of an unfolding and ultimately illuminating narrative. However, Murakami’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration: please, Murakami, just say what you want to say, is the over-riding feeling. He takes this position in his first person writing, but also when he reports the expositions of Miu and of Sumire, the latter through two documents she’s written and saved onto disks (immediately also dating the piece).
Murakami starts to warm to his new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell) that is Sumire’s disappearance being linked to how she’s split herself, found a ‘door’ to the mystical other side. He draws parallels with Miu’s experience some years earlier of getting stuck on a fairground Ferris wheel and seeing herself, through binoculars (which he explains away the presence of, clumsily again), in her own window some way off, sexually engaged with a man of no real importance. Murakami interjects this tale only now, almost as an afterthought, as he does with the reveal that Miu actually has pure white hair, which she dyes, and which turned that way following this traumatic and strange event.
Sumire, we’re told, is lost forever and so, naively, we believe Murakami. Yet conveniently, she appears late again in the book and we don’t know for sure if she’s really there or if K. is deluded. The undertow of depth tries to coalesce into something but ultimately the tale is too fractured to serve this purpose. Murakami does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
In keeping with the feel of this book, I can only conclude that (by way of introducing an idea in an unseemly place here), as readable in part as Sputnik Sweetheart is, it is ultimately somewhat lost (just like the occasional reference to the Sputnik satellite that Murakami also draws our attention to). Maybe that was Murakami’s point: just like the original Japanese though, I shall never know.