Reviews - From Our Archives
Harvill ISBN 1- 8604-825X
Sam North reviews
Murakami's novel about lust and frustration in Japan
once said if its something a single book can explain,
its not worth having explained...
A simple tale told
well. Haruki Murakami is master of creating sexually enigmatic and frustrated
characters who seek happiness...but only with people who cannot reciprocate.
His world is full of people going through the motions of a life, deeply
passionate about music, literature or art, yet somehow never able to
feel the same way about fellow humans.
There are a few moments in Haruki Murakamis new novel Sputnik Sweetheart that really catch its central theme. Sumire, the 22 year old
sexually confused, putative writer is being tempted by the lure
of a different life. She is developing new sensual feelings
for an older woman of 38, Miu.
Sometimes I feel so- I dont know - lonely. The
kind of helpless feeling when everything youre used to
has been ripped away. Like theres no more gravity, and
Im left to drift in outer space with no idea where Im
Like a little lost Sputnik?
I guess so.'
Sputnik Sweetheart is not about Laika the space dog who went into orbit
without food or water and literally barked from hunger, loneliness and
baked to death. Sputnik Sweetheart is however about a misunderstanding
that becomes a nickname for Sumire. Sumire meeting Miu at a banquet
she finds herself entranced by this elegant mysterious older woman.
Until that very moment Miu ran her fingers through Sumires hair
she hadnt known she was gay. From this moment on, heart in mouth
she is in orbit around Miu.
Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by K. - a couple of years older than
Sumire, he is a contemporary of hers, meeting her at College. He is
now a primary school teacher and he loves Sumire deeply. Sumire maintains
nocturnal hours to write, calls him regularly at 3am to talk
but she loves him only as a friend, a source of deep frustration for
Of course youll quickly realise that if boy loves girl who has
just discovered she is gay, it isnt going to be cute
or end happily. Sumire doesnt even know if the object of her affection
will return her love. She is too shy or polite to mention it. Miu for
her part takes Sumire on to work for her and train in the wine business,
then entwining their lives together - perhaps leading Sumire on. Sumire
doesnt care, she is in love.
Naturally this being a Murakami novel, nothing is prosaic. A primary
school teacher will and does think very deeply about life and love his
music. Sumire has dropped out of College to pursue a life as a writer,
is given an allowance by tolerant parents to explore her talents, but
she cannot, for whatever reason, ever finish a project she has started
or can only come up with good endings for things she cannot begin. When
she meets Miu, she cannot write at all.
Miu, elegant, mature and beautiful is flawed. She is hiding a head of
pure white hair for one thing, a result of a traumatic experience when
she was younger, a true moment of horror. Naturally she is now unable
to commit. Thus we have a perfect frustrated love triangle. This is
perfectly illustrated when K moves Sumire to her new apartment and experiences
a terrific hard on that Sumire just ignores when hugging him and he
has to maintain a superhuman will not to pin her down, awaken her to
Usually Murakamis novels are rooted in Japan and his technique
is to trace the surface of his culture, name the prized labels his characters
wear with pride, detail their CDs and books they carry around. This
is very much part of Japanese culture. The Japanese cherish labels even
more than western young consumers do and are just as fickle. They are
very passionate about certain western jazz or other particulates of
our Western culture. Sputnik veers off course by taking us out of this
world to a distant island in Greece. When you are on an island in literature,
you know something will happen. We are forewarned by Sumire telling
K about her cat that disappeared, vanished like smoke when she was a
Sumire is consumed by her desire for Miu, but is Miu just toying with
her? Is she refusing to consummate or acknowledge the passion that she
must know that Sumire feels, after all she is the more experienced woman?
Sexual frustration can drive a person over the edge. They swim naked,
they touch momentarily, but Miu always keeps it formal and Sumire is
slowly losing it.
Sputnik Sweetheart is a fast read, easily consumed, slight even. It
doesnt catch your heart in the way that South of the
Border does or baffle you as does the wonderful A
Wild Sheep Chase. This is not the book to start with if you
are beginning on a journey of exploring Murakamis work, yet as
part of his oevre, it is charming, sweet and a perfect summer read.
He will always be enigmatic. You know that Sumire will disappear, like
her cat, you know nothing will be resolved, you know that when it is
all over ...Miu will be like an empty room after everyone has
One reads Murakami as you read poetry, for the sheer pleasure of invention.
Norwegian Wood is the benchmark and Hard
Boiled Wonderland still remains for me his masterwork. But
if you have read the others, then like me, you will have to read this
and Sumire will become woven into the fabric of your dreams. Just by
reading a Murakami novel you become one of his characters and you begin
to understand with each book that he has been, all the while, quietly
© Sam North 2001 author of the DIAMONDS & ANOTHER PLACE TO DIE: ENDTIME CHRONICLES