A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits…In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be 17 years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a women. This was where it all began, and where it all ended. Almost.”
Sputnik Sweetheart is a novel of almosts, where liminal spaces overlap and longing can never quite be divorced from true love. It is beautifully evocative yet difficult to define, a tale of unrequited love, unrealised ambition, and yearning, always yearning, for more. Perhaps because it is about anticipation of, and longing for, love rather than love itself, it is also one of the most romantic books I have ever read.
The plot revolves around a love triangle between three people who, like Othello, love not wisely but too well. Their fatal flaws are not violent jealousy though, but a sort of insidious loneliness destined to prevent them ever really finding what they most crave. There is K., your typical easy-going and pensive Murakami narrator; Sumire, a bohemian and obsessive writer who dresses in an oversized coat and heavy boots, dreams of emulating Jack Kerouac, and whom K. is helplessly in love with; and Miu, the women Sumire has fallen for. Miu is a successful wine importer, independent, stylish, and confident – everything Sumire wants to be. She is drawn to Miu like a little Sputnik orbiting a vast planet.
If ever love has transformed a person it does Sumire. She becomes Miu’s assistant, exchanging a life of compulsive all night writing and chain smoking for a regular nine-to-five job. She buys nice clothes and changes her hairstyle, begins to appreciate wine and learn Italian, and soon moves into a bigger apartment. She spends hours on the phone with K., discussing the big questions in life: love, sexual desire, existentialism, the process of writing, whether she should confess her feelings to Miu.
Miu and Sumire set off on a business trip to Europe, leaving K. behind to console himself in a series of meaningless affairs. But when a distraught Miu calls K. out of the blue from a small Greek island to say that Sumire has disappeared without a trace, he drops everything and travels halfway around the world to help find her.
What started out as a love story morphs into a sort of otherworldly detective novel. K. finds a document on a floppy disc hidden in Sumire’s luggage and it holds a clue. But can it be that the key to Sumire’s fate lies in the strange events which afflicted Miu on a Ferris wheel almost 14 years before, turning her prematurely and completely white?
Transformation – both voluntary and involuntary – is one of the central themes of Sputnik Sweetheart. The loneliness is not only borne of not being around others, but of being apart from one’s self. Each ruminates on loneliness in their own way: “Who can really distinguish between the sea and what’s reflected in it? Or tell the difference between the falling rain and loneliness?” meditates K. at one point. This detached passion runs throughout his narration: you get the feeling that in recounting Sumire’s love for Miu he is really giving voice to the love he has fantasised Sumire showing him. Typically for Murakami characters they prefer this sort of sexually enigmatic fantasy to actual love. Each of the protagonists lives out their own longing in their own unreciprocated – and therefore unsullied – way. Sputnik literally translates into English as ‘travelling companion,’ and that is what they are each looking for: a human connection, someone to talk to, fall asleep next to, and yearn for. Someone to free them from themselves, from loneliness. And in a way that is what they each find, though not in the way any of them had hoped.
Part detective novel without detective or resolution, part love story without reciprocated love, pinning Sputnik Sweetheart down is far from easy. Everything seems to be “one step out of line, a cardigan with the buttons done up wrong.” Writing in The Guardian when it was first published, Julie Myerson professed to not really knowing what it was all about. “But”, she continued, “it has touched me deeper and pushed me further than anything I’ve read in a long time.”
Such is the mysterious power of Murakami novels.
Given the characters obsessive longing, it is perhaps unsurprising that the imagery sometimes borders on the overblown. Murakami treads a fine line, pushing the longing as far as possible, without quite tipping over into the histrionic. Near the beginning Sumire expresses her desire to one day compose “a massive 19th century-style Total Novel, a kind of portmanteau packed with every possible phenomenon in order to capture the soul and human destiny.” Sputnik Sweetheart achieves this in barely 230 pages. With a similarly spacious style to Hemingway, Murakami lets events speak for themselves; he is a master of anticipating his readers’ reactions, manipulating without appearing to do so. “A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.” All the brilliance of Murakami’s novels lies in an understanding of this. And it is precisely because this magical otherworldliness is juxtaposed with a routine, everyday recounting of events that he is able to move one so.
There are those who find the ambiguity of Murakami’s fiction baffling and infuriating in equal measure. Certainly it is unwise to pick up any of his books expecting rational explanations or perfectly tied up plots. Yet the quality of Sputnik Sweetheart is in its representation of an emotion, a sense, a deep held belief that can be neither proved nor disproved. It captures longing – for love, for artistic realisation, for life, for beauty – at its most elemental.
Everything is ethereal, nothing quite as it should be. Whatever you think you perceive vanishes when looked at too closely. Like most great romances, Sputnik Sweetheart has the feel of a dream. There is something of Wuthering Heights here, in the way that not even physical separation can overcome the connections the characters share, and not even emotional closeness can fill the void each others absence leaves in themselves. As with Cathy and Heathcliff, what takes place defies explanation, and doesn’t really need one either.
“All over again I understood how important, how irreplaceable, Sumire was to me. In her own special way she’d kept me tethered to the world. As I talked to her and read her stories, my mind quietly expanded, and I could see things I’d never seen before. Without even trying, we grew close. Like a pair of young lovers undressing in front of each other, Sumire and I had exposed our hearts to one another, an experience I’d never have with anyone else, anywhere. We cherished what we had together, though we never put into words how very precious it was.”
Like much of Murakami’s oeuvre Sputnik Sweetheart is best understood as a sort of ellipsis, a gap in everyday life that is simultaneously mundane and fantastical and into which all the things we sort of know about ourselves and sort of suspect about the world around us are given composite reality. He is an author who never fails to reaffirm my love of reading. His fiction, never more so than in this slim novella, creates worlds where dreams – in all their bizarre and often troubling unpredictability – come true.
Edition shown: The Harvill Press, ISBN: 9781860468254, 229pp
Currently available edition: Vintage, ISBN: 9780099448471 , 240pp
Vulpes Libris is one of ten blogs invited by The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, London, to take part in their new Bloggers’ Book of the Month promotion. Sputnik Sweetheart will be our choice for March.