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

February in Canada: A Love Story with a Difference – Bear

Marian Engel: Bear, 1976.

My impression of the 1970s is that they must all have been on drugs for most of the decade – and the films, books and music of that period (perhaps starting a couple of years earlier, from about 1967-68) have that same dreamy, occasionally frenzied and lurid quality to them. At the same time, it must have been an exciting time of questioning, rebelling, reassessing and ‘finding your true self’. Even if the wins of that generation ended up being transient and often illusory.

I can’t help feeling that, in some respects, we have regressed as a culture in the 2010s, i.e. that there is less of a willingness to explore and push boundaries, that it’s all about bestseller lists and celebrities. This is all by way of introducing the novel Bear by Marian Engel, which has been described as ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada’, although at the time it was generally well received by critics and even won the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. Let’s not be coy about it: it is about a woman who develops a passion for a captive bear, and this passion includes quite explicit sex. What surprised me, however, is how much more shocked readers seem to be about this now, in an age when the worst kind of pornography is readily available to all.

Are we in danger of focusing so much on the bestiality aspect of the book that we miss what it is about entirely? Given the vigorous over-reactions, I was expecting something a lot more titillating, but the sex scenes constitute a very small part of the novel. Failing that, I expected it to be a much more surreal type of novel, full of heavy symbolism. It is in fact quite a straightforward narrative, although it does have a fable-like quality about it.

It is actually a novel about loneliness, about feeling alienated from the world, about being a woman in a world where men and career paths and options have proved disappointing. Lou is an introverted librarian in her late 20s who is sent on a mission to assess the estate bequeathed to her institute by the last of the Cary family, an oddly luxurious house with no indoor toilet on a small island on a lake in the remotest reaches of Ontario.

For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclsuion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.

Spending time by herself in this house which seems strangely incongrous with the surrounding landscape, Lou tries to reconcile the rather conventional library of 19th century classics with the bear that ‘has always been there’ on the grounds, captive, yet obviously important somehow to the family. Notes about bear myths and legends fall out of books as she catalogues them. She discovers documents by and about the early settlers in that region, documents which are sometimes at odds with the official history of Canada.

The ones who were most truly romantic perished horribly… Fell through the ice, contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis, died of strange fevers, scurvy, depression, or neglect. Only the hardies survived and their few memoirs. Often the diaires that were left to the Institute broke off when the settlers arrived from England. If you were building your own cabin, making your own cloth and soap and candles, furniture and tools, there was no time to concoct a bottle of ink or find a quill to use it with.

Although she can buy food from the shop on the mainland, in some ways Lou is imitating the lifestyle of those early settlers. Her few interactions with the people in the area prove rather unsatisfactory and leave her feeling more alone than when she is by herself in the house, or swimming in the lake with the bear. It is the bear who provides uncritical companionship.

She loved him with a clean passion that she had never felt before. Once, briefly, she had had as a lover a man of elegance and charm, but she had felt uncomfortable when he said he loved her, felt it meant something she did not understand, and indeed, it meant, she discovered, that he loved her as long as the socks were folded and she was at his disposal on demand… She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.

This is much more a novel about trying to find a sense of purpose, agency and yes, perhaps reconnect with nature. It reminds me a lot of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, with its close observation of the rhythms of nature and with no anthropomorphising of the animal. What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is – a bent towards self-destruction that I have never understood, but which many people seem to experience at some point in their lives.

So, while I’m not sure if this is the greatest Canadian novel of all time (I haven’t read enough Canadian literature to make an informed decision about this), it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing. I am glad this novel has been rediscovered and I hope that it won’t be read and discussed for all the wrong reasons.

I have two more books by Marian Engel on my shelf – I found all three of them second-hand at a bookshop a couple of years ago and couldn’t resist buying all three. The Honeyman Festival and Lunatic Villas seem to feature older female protagonists in urban environments, tied down by marriage and children, trying in vain to recreate something of their past glory and hopes and dreams. Ah, my perfect cup of tea, then! I might continue with one of them for my February in Canada month…

Love and Being Content in a Mad, Bad World

tooclosePascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (transl. Emily Boyce)

I always get something out of a Pascal Garnier book, but there are some which truly stand out. This is one of the stand-out ones. As usual with this author, it is a slim volume which leaves you ever-so-slightly moody and breathless.

It’s a simple-enough story of Éliette, a grandmother who is ‘not old enough or fat enough to be a Mémé’, who is facing life on her own after her husband’s death two months before he was due to retire. The house they had bought and renovated in preparation for their retirement is in an isolated location in the Ardèche and the life ‘which was supposed to be a never-ending holiday’. After a few months, she finds herself getting restless with this placid existence and overly helpful neighbours. She buys herself a tiny bubble car and zips around the countryside with it. Then, two kilometres away from home, just as the rain is starting, she gets a puncture. A man in his forties called Étienne stops to help and she offers to give him a lift. When he tells her he has broken down himself and is looking for a phone, she invites him into her house. Gradually, some kind of relationship develops between these two strangers, although Éliette is not the sweet, trusting old dear that people can easily take advantage of.

‘I’ll warn you now: if you’re a murderer, I have very little to lose, and there’s nothing here worth stealing unless you count the walls.’

Of course, readers familiar with Garnier’s dark stories will recognise the warning signs, but the danger only becomes apparent once Étienne’s daughter appears on the scene and Éliette finds out about the death of her neighbours’ son. I won’t tell you a word more, because these stories always veer off into unexpected, off-the-wall directions. I will just say that the similarity of the two names is probably not coincidental, as the two characters have more in common than might be apparent at first glance.

She was innocent, just like him, like the worst criminal, like the dog who kills the cat, the cat who kills the mouse, the mouse who… must kill something too. All around, in the bushes and the grass, prey and predators mingled in the same macabre dance. You could be one or the other, depending on the circumstances, all of which were extenuating. It was what they called life, the strongest of all excuses.

I rather loved this wistful but completely unsentimental look at aging, loneliness and hoping to find love or at least comfort in a world which seems to have gone crazy. This book will be released on 11th April and comes heartily recommended.

feveratdawnPéter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn (transl. Elizabeth Szász)

This is a fictionalised account of how the writer’s (and film maker’s) parents met and fell in love after the end of WW2.  After his father’s death, Gárdos was given the letters his parents had preserved with such care for so many years by his mother.

The backdrop is anything but promising: Miklos and Lili have just emerged from Belsen and are recovering in different refugee camps in Sweden. Miklos is 25 years old, emaciated and toothless, weighs barely 29 kilos. On his way to Sweden he starts coughing up bloody foam. He has tuberculosis and is told that he has only six months left to live, but that doesn’t stop him looking for a wife. He finds a list of all 117 young Hungarian women from his region ‘whom nurses and doctors were trying to bring back to life in various temporary hospitals across Sweden’ and writes to each one of them in his beautiful handwriting. A few of them write back, but it is the letter of eighteen-year-old Lili which captures his attention. He is instantly convinced that she is the one, but over the next six months they will have to make do with writing each other increasingly passionate letters and seeing each other only three times very briefly and with great difficulty.

When they do meet face-to-face for the first time, they almost run away from each other, but instead they recognise each other in choked emotion. They are kindred souls, although they have had different upbringings and disagree about a number of things. Lili wants to convert to Catholicism, Miklos is a committed Marxist. Miklos is a dreamer with poetic licence, Lili is more timid and realistic. And, although they try to tell each other everything, they never speak about certain important things, neither then, nor later.

My father never told Lili that for three months he burned bodies in Belsen concentration camp… Lili did not tell Miklos about the day of her liberation from Belsen. It took her nine hours to drag herself from the barracks to the clothes depot, a distance of about a hundred metres… Miklos could never bring himself to tell her of his time, before he burned corpses, as an orderly in the typhoid barrack… the most ghastly block in the camp… And Lili never said a word about her twelve-day journey to Germany in a freight wagon.

This is not a book about the Holocaust, but a book about survival, about finding hope and love against all odds, when all the world around you seems ghastly and hopeless. It is anything but sickly sweet – charming, poignant and with little shots of sarcasm and humour which keep it from descending into sentimentality.

The film director originally wrote this story as a film script, then later turned it into a novel. The film came out in December 2015 (in Hungarian). Here is the official trailer on Vimeo.

https://vimeo.com/138878104

 

 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Our heads contain worlds. Or is it just the one over and over?

People pop out to smoke cigarettes,

simper, gossip, fuck and pray.

Maggotty ideas fester – let them die –

voices assault us daily.

What is real I cannot say.

He’s tried to flirt with the mainstream.

His world always out of kilter

at an angle only he can measure,

drumming beats no one will follow.

There is no shared vision,

yet we wish horses of belonging for us beggars.

Come inside, ladies and gents!

If only you’d discover that underneath I’m much like you,

a gentler man of erudite barbs.

One read and you’ll be captivated.

I know I’ve worked so hard for this:

how can I share that knowledge, that wonder with you?

 

How do you keep your balance as a creative person?  That is the question that Joe Hesch would like us to consider at Open Link Night on dVerse Poets. Always a sore point with me…

Wallflower

It is the swirl, ah, the twirl of laughter

blending hoops,

caressed, undressed with light fantastic,

small steps,

quick flicks.

We sway, away, tingling with burst of flight.

How trim, how sensual those Senegalese hips!

As the Bachata envelopes us in its languorous abandonment,

we rejoice in their envy-soaked grasp.

 

Drowned in cocktails and promise

of bloodened lips, how alone

she felt, past desire, amid the rhythms, the tropical beats.

Not young enough

or pretty enough

the sequins now scattered,

a face in the crowd, too much flesh in a sweat,

as she seeks to convey

all her love for the music,

and forget.

And forget.

 

Eleanor Rigby Goes to Bed

Each evening she finishes her meal

with a small cube of cheese on a stale piece of bread.

Dry is better for digestion, protects against wind.

Calcium is good for the bones.

In winter she moves the chair closer to the electric fire,

which she leaves on for just three hours a day.

She does not hold with showers, a bath every four days suffices,

sluicing down all water marks with a damp cloth.

She brushes her teeth with an eggtimer

and flosses every chink, quietly, mercilessly.

Then, before she lays down her head on the starched pillow,

she carefully pouts her lips

and frames them with the scarlet luxurious ooze

of Chanel’s True Red.