“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
Moons, loneliness, love, music, sex and dreaming. These are what make up the fabric of a Murakami tale. But unlike other writers, Murakami sews these threads together in a most unusual, almost avant-garde fashion; they shimmer brightly for a few moments, then immediately slip out of vision. It is precisely this elusive, gossamer quality of Murakami’s books that endears his writing so much to me. His stories talk about dreams but also feel like dreams – odd, trembling narratives that return in stir-snatches.
I particularly orbited towards Sputnik Sweetheart for three reasons – the Murakami name, the pretty, alliterative title and Sumire. A chain-smoking girl who wants to be a novelist like her hero, Kerouac. I felt a great closeness with Sumire as a character, despite the fact that we are fundamentally quite different. Perhaps it’s her vast devotion to literature, her struggles with loneliness and self-perception, her ‘oversized herringbone coat’ and desire to be something novel – ‘wild, cool, dissolute’. Even her name, which means ‘violet’ in Japanese, has a special magnetic pull – as a young girl, I created an alter-ego for myself called Violet. She was all the fearless parts of me I was too fearful to show.
Sumire is best friends with K, a sombre, solitary schoolteacher. K, who is also the narrator, is in love with Sumire – always has been, always will be – but she has no idea. The two continue to shape their lives around each other like interlocking commas, discussing books and feelings to the point of exhaustion. But one day. Sumire falls madly in love. The object of her affection is an elegant, older woman named Miu who imports wine for a living. As Sumire orbits closer to Miu, she trades her large coat and rough boots for a more refined sense of style and attitude, borrowed from the older woman. But this inspires one of the most stirring dialogues from the book: “I have this strange feeling that I’m not myself anymore. It’s hard to put into words, but I guess it’s like I was fast asleep, and someone came, disassembled me, and hurriedly put me back together again. That sort of feeling.”
One day, while Sumire and Miu are on a business trip to Europe, K gets a crackly, collapsible call in the middle of the night. Miu is calling, from a tiny Greek island. Something has happened. Something has happened to Sumire.
He has to go.
And this is where the story begins to unfold and overlap itself, like many layers of tulle. Murakami’s simple prose assimilates into a story that is entirely constructed of metaphor, or really, ‘signs and symbols’. Every phrase somehow flows into and out of the next, like the beautiful wines the characters sip often. The effect is haunting, evoking the unreal, off-soft sensations of waking from a dream. Some particular expressions struck me in the way they held pretty lyricism and clinical clunkiness in each of their hands. “[She] grasped the pit with her fingers and, like a poet getting the punctuation just right, gracefully discarded it in the ashtray.”
In her apartment, Sumire’s books lie piled like a “bunch of intellectual refugees”. On the Greek island, K tastes “the kind of air that felt like if you breathed it in, your lungs would be dyed the same shade of blue.” And reality is a “cardigan with the buttons done up wrong”.
The world of dreams, as in every Murakami novel, forms the vertebrae of the story. But it is subtle, never explicitly stating itself but rather, tickling your subconsciousness, the roots of your own dreams. I won’t say too much on my interpretation of the dream world’s role in Sputnik, because that would stain your own reading experience. But pay attention to where the moons show up and the strangeness emerges.
Sputnik, in Russian, means ‘travelling companion’. Murakami weaves this definition with Laika’s (who was the first creature in space) journey, along with Sumire’s unhappiness, K’s misalignment of himself into society and Miu’s cataclysmic ‘incident’. There are several other plot undercurrents that bob beneath the surface of these main shooting arcs, each an embodiment of ‘sputnik’. In essence, this novel is a hypnotic observation of loneliness and loss, within and without our lone ‘selves’.