January in Japan: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami Haruki

Murakami Haruki: Sputnik Sweetheart, trans. Philip Gabriel, Vintage, 2002.

Back in the 1990s – early 2000s, I really liked Murakami Haruki (although I would often say that I like the ‘other Murakami’, namely Ryū, just as much). This is because our Japanese professor really loved Norwegian Wood and we read it together in class. In fact, at the time I read the Japanese in parallel with the original translation by Alfred Birnbaum, which was intended for students of the Japanese language. Jay Rubin translated the better-known version available for Western readers and that is the one I have now on my shelves.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) and his non-fiction book about running (2008) were the last books of his that I truly enjoyed and I haven’t bothered much with his more recent novels (although I did fall for the hype and pre-order a limited edition of Killing Commendatore from Waterstones).

Sputnik Sweetheart was one of the earlier books (published in 1999) that I had not read, so I took advantage of January in Japan to see if I could recapture some of my earlier excitement about Murakami. And, on the whole, I did! There were fewer of the typical Murakami tics (or bingo sheet of elements) that crop up time and again in his novels and stories. It was more realistic, but with just a slight tinge of surrealism.

The narrator K is best friends with the idealistic and stubborn would-be novelist Sumire, who used to go to the same college as him. Now he is a schoolteacher and Sumire an aspiring writer. Truth be told, he is in love with Sumire, but she never seems to think of him in that way. Instead, she falls desperately in love with the glamorous businesswoman of Korean origin, Miu, who convinces Sumire to be her assistant.

Sumire shares her dilemma with K (without noticing the parallels to his own situation): should she tell Miu how she feels? Can she bear to be in Miu’s proximity without a physical relationship? Does a love affair like that mean she abandons her principles and aspirations as a writer or would it help her to gather the experience she needs in order to be a more well-rounded writer?

I particularly enjoyed reading the tongue-in-cheek description of Sumire’s writing abilities, which is evident in spite of K’s supposed admiration for her (and he hastens to add that he appreciates the direct power and honesty of her writing):

She had so many things she had to write, so many stories to tell. If she could only find the right outlet, heated thoughts and ideas would gush out like lava, congealing into a steady stream of inventive works the likes of which the world had never seen… A photo of her, smiling coolly, would appear in the arts section of the newspaper, and editors would beat a path to her door. But it never happened that way. Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end. Not that she suffered from writer’s block – far from it. She wrote endlessley, everything that came into her head. The problem was that she wrote too much.

In the end, Sumire accompanies Miu on a business trip to Europe, which they wrap up with a holiday on a Greek island. One night, K receives a phone call from Miu: could he please come to Greece at once? Sumire has disappeared.

This isn’t really a detective novel, although they try to find out what has happened to Sumire with the somewhat lacklustre help of the Greek police. Although K never quite finds out what happened to his friend, he starts to uncover possible reasons why she chose to disappear, when she realised that Miu would never be the lover she would have liked her to be. Although the ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ nickname that Sumire gives to Miu is a private joke (Miu mistakes the word ‘Beatnik’ with ‘Sputnik’), this book is very much about the essential loneliness of the human being, that no one ever fully understands or accepts us, or can travel the whole distance with us.

And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

Just like Norwegian Wood, this is a coming-of-age novel full of yearning. K recognises what Sumire brought into his life and what is now missing when he loses her.

Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again. 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 for ever. What I’d lost was not just Sumire. I’d lost that precious flame.

Call it the love of our lives, our youthful idealism, our illusions, our dreams – we all learn to live with our losses as we grow older, but we cannot always express them as wistfully or as wittily as Murakami does here.

I can now safely say that Sputnik Sweetheart is on my list of Murakami Haruki novels that I love (together with Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). I still have to read South of the Border, West of the Sun, to see where it fits in. I also love this super-quick graphic summary of the book: https://www.deviantart.com/larsony/art/Sputnik-Sweetheart-144045829

30 thoughts on “January in Japan: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami Haruki”

  1. I’m really going to have to have another go at Murakami. I’ve tried several times, always unsuccessfully, for reasons I can’ really explain. I’m out of step!

    1. He can be very annoying, especially in his later (post 2005 or so) works, in which he starts to repeat himself. They’ve even created a Murakami bingo sheet! I suppose one of the dangers of success – and also, the editors no longer bother to rein him in, so the works get longer and longer.

  2. I’ve had mixed views of what I’ve read of his. I also liked N Wood, but 1Q48 was too long and too bizarre but intermittently brilliant. Maybe I need to do as you did and go back to earlier stuff like this.

    1. I quite enjoyed A Wild Sheep Chase, but it does have some of his recurring motifs, which can become annoying after a while (the girl with the ears, the sheep). I have South of the Border on my bookshelf, so maybe something for next year?

  3. I’m very glad that this is a well-done translation, because the parts you shared flow beautifully, Marina Sofia. And there’s that subtlety (or at least I thought so) that can be very effective in the Japanese writing I’ve read. Perhaps it’s my language background, but I do respect a well-written translation… At any rate, I’m glad you enjoyed this so well.

  4. I came to Murakami through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it has always been my favorite. Murakami’s narrators seem to make their way through life just as I do, confused mostly, lost, but somehow moving forward.

    1. That is a very good description indeed! You (and others) are tempting me more and more to reread The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is one work that WAS edited for the English translation (and slimmed down).

  5. This sounds like a Murakami I could get on board with – largely realistic with touches of surrealism, and the mystery element also appeals.

    Re: Norwegian Wood (which is probably my favourite Murakami of those I’ve read so far), have you seen the film adaptation? It’s on Mubi at the moment, and I’m wondering whether it’s worth rewatching. (Oddly enough, I can remember very little about it other than the dreamy atmosphere and Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful score!)

    1. Yes, it is closest to Norwegian Wood, so appeals to those of us who like a more realistic Murakami. Thank you also for the reminder about Mubi – I have not watched the film adaptation and will do so this weekend.

      1. Did you watch Norwegian Wood in the end? What did you think?
        The director is Trần Anh Hùng, who is Vietnamese French.

  6. Yes, this is another good one, a beautiful story, and the only drawback is that every time it gets mentioned, I have the Doves song ‘Satellites’ in my head for days! Mind you, that’s a great song, with a very similar mood.

    I think I’ve read and reviewed all his fiction in English now, with the exception of his most recent story collection (I’m waiting for a cheap paperback edition…). I actually saw the T-shirt book today in a bookshop, and I’m afraid that’s where I draw the line (in fact, I think it’s a few miles or so beyond that line…).

    1. Yes, not going to bother with the T Shirt thing. I did like his book about running – at the time I was training for a marathon and could completely relate to everything he said there.

    1. I do find him a bit hit and miss nowadays, and generally prefer his earlier work. But there are so many other wonderful Japanese writers, that I don’t mind if people decide that one book by him is enough. The advantage with this one is that it’s quite short (unlike Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which are both quite long).

  7. Can I take it that you didn’t like Killing Commodatore? I read it on our flight to Tokyo, and thought it wonderful, but of course I feel that way about most of his writing. Kafka on The Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are my two favorites, though, and I often feel Norwegian Wood is “overrated.” Anyway, I want to/need to read Sputnik sweetheart, and you have made it sound all the more enticing.

    1. I liked Killing Commendatore (partly because of the Mozart reference) more than his two previous novels, but it was overlong. I cannot be entirely objective about Norwegian Wood because of my beloved Japanese professor (who died a while back), but it is his most conventional one, certainly. I think Kafka on the Shore and the Wind-Up Bird are my two favourites, but Sputnik Sweetheart was certainly heading that way.

  8. I’m glad that reading this rekindled your love of Murakami – like you, I really enjoyed his early books and fell out of love with his work around the same time. Unfortunately the only early works I haven’t read are his first two novels but reviews like this make me more likely to read them. (And to think how much I longed for them when they were only available in a hard to find out-of-print edition!)

  9. Thanks for the review! I have mixed feelings about Murakami, mostly from reading his later novels like 1Q84, so I’d like to try one of his earlier books. This sounds like a good option!

  10. I’ve just finished his nonfiction book Novelist as a Profession and wondered which of his books I should try next. This one could be a good option.

    I loved Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun. I had lukewarm feelings for Norwegian Wood and couldn’t finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
    I have no idea if I’ll like Sputnik Sweetheart.

    1. Ah, you are confounding all my predictions, as I like all of the ones you mention above (except for South of the Border, which I haven’t read). I think Sputnik Sweetheart is worth a try, especially if you’ve had a break from Murakami for a while. Added advantage: it’s quite short.

      1. Now I have to read it and see by myself. I wonder if I should read the English translation since it has been reviewed by the author or just go with the French one.

  11. I need to try this book again. It was my first Murakami book and I didn’t know what to expect and I really had difficulty with the writing style.

    Now with a couple of his books under my belt, I feel like I should try this book again.

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