Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami has three characters at its core. Sumire is a young Japanese woman who is in her early twenties. She is an aspiring writer, and holds part time jobs along with the stipend she receives from her family to sustain her livelihood till she finishes her novel. Miu is a Korean woman whom Sumire is attracted towards. Among other things Miu imports wines in to Japan, and asks Sumire to work for her. K is the narrator and lead central character. He is her friend and few years older than her. An elementary school teacher, he has passionate feelings for Sumire.
While K is the narrator of the novel, the story effortlessly moves between the characters like a football team passing the ball. Sumire is an anti-social woman who doesn’t get along well with many people because she is a motor mouth. She dresses in clothes too large for herself, and often goes without matching her socks. Sumire can write beautifully but cannot complete her novel. Her works have an ending or a beginning, but never both. She feels that her writing lacks a soul that will connect the two.
K is two years older than Sumire, and they initially bond over their love for reading. K develops intense feelings of passion for her, but knows that she cannot reciprocate the same for him. There are moments when this passion flares up in him, and he takes to having a relationship on the side to deal with his urges. K even talks to Sumire when she calls him up in the middle of the night. K serves as the only person to which Sumire can vent out, or open up to.
Miu is a successful businesswoman, who gave up her training as a pianist to look after the family business after her dad died. She meets Sumire at one of her former student’s wedding. The two of them talk about the author Jack Kerouac, whom Miu mistakenly calls of the Sputnik style instead of the Beatnik style (having mixed up the two words). Sumire who thought herself to be asexual, feels an attraction towards her. Miu asks Sumire to work for her, first three days a week and as a full time personal secretary later. Due to the nature of work, they have to travel much. The word ‘Sputnik’ means a travelling companion, which is why the book is title ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’.
Sumire is an aspiring writer, and K is her friend who loves her. Sumire falls in love with Miu, who offers her a job and is 17 years older to her. The two are off to Europe for a business trip and decide to spend some time at a Greek island to relax. One day K receives a call from Miu, and she asks him to come at once. Sumire has disappeared. When K reaches the island, he learns from Miu and some of the Sumire’s writings as to what had happened before her disappearance.
The book is full of angst and loneliness. Sumire is full of angst about her not being able to write the novel she wants, and her nonconformance with society. Sumire has intense feelings for Miu, but doesn’t know how to talk to her about it. K pains about his unrequited love towards Sumire, and tries to sleep with other women. He ends up still thinking about Sumire all the time, and it makes things worse for him for her to be so close to him, and yet not with him. Miu has a secret in her past, and doesn’t know how to react when Sumire disappears.
Murakami has a wonderful way with words. His choice of words make you feel the stuffiness that the characters feel, and he can paint a vivid picture with ease. His play of metaphors is brilliant. When we learn of Sumire’s inability to finish a novel, he uses the metaphor of ancient Chinese gates. These were sealed with bones of soldiers, and their souls would revive only when fresh blood was mixed with them. There is another instance Sumire is going through changes in her life on account of her new job under Miu, when K explains how in life one uses the gears of a transmission to adjust to the realities of life. He tells her how she has taken off one transmission, but not yet bolted another while the all the engine keeps generating all the raw power. Another recurring theme is of duality or ‘the other side’. For most counts, the two sides are polar opposites. What one lives in, and what dreams; what one wants to be, and what one is; what is in the past and what lives today.
The story is well layered. Miu has a secret of something that happened 14 years in the past that made her hair turn white overnight. The story behind that is told in the Sumire’s story, which comes as a part of K’s own story in his search of Sumire. There are fantastical elements in Miu’s story, in Sumire’s dreams and K’s experiences.
Overall this makes for a gripping read with its layers of stories, character back stories and the intense longing for something that one cannot have.
Some wonderful quotes from this book:
“In the world we live in, what we know and what we don’t know are like Siamese twins, inseparable, existing in a state of confusion.”
“We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our life, like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone forever.”
“I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.”
“I’ve written an incredible amount up till now. Nearly every day. It’s like I was standing in a huge pasture, cutting the grass all by myself, and the grass grows back almost as fast as I can cut it. Today I’d cut over here, tomorrow over there… By the time I make one complete round of the pasture the grass in the first spot is as tall as it was in the beginning.”
A bunch of us friends got together over the idea of having a reading group to discuss books and authors (as most reading groups do). As part of this month’s activity, we had polled to start reading Haruki Murakami. Sputnik Sweetheart was part of that push to read his work.