March 3, 2015

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

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?

One of my reading goals for 2015 is to read a piece of Japanese literature per month and I chose Sputnik Sweetheart as my choice for February. I'm not the only one reading Japanese Literature this year. Sabrina at Unmanaged Mischief has a reading project called Year of Murakami and plans to read twelve books by Murakami this year. While my reading project is not focused exclusively on this one author, I am reading several Murakami novels. Sabrina was reading Sputnik Sweetheart in February so I thought I'd join her.

Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by K, a teacher in love with an aspiring novelist named Sumire. Sumire views K as her best friend but is, herself, smitten with a sophisticated businesswoman named Miu. Sumire spends many hours talking with K about the big questions of life before accompanying Miu to Europe and then on to a tiny Greek island. It is on this Greek island that Sumire reveals to Miu that she is in love with her, but this love is not reciprocated. Soon after this revelation, Sumire disappears "like smoke." Miu makes a desperate call for help to K who hurries off to the Greek island in search of his friend. K discovers that something very strange has happened to Sumire even as he has his own haunting visions and uncovers the strange history of Miu.

Sputnik Sweetheart is a melancholy love story, a detective story, and a surreal mystery all wrapped up into a meditation on the human condition of longing and loneliness.

Themes, Writing, Thoughts
The usual Murakami themes of isolation, loneliness, and alienation are present in Sputnik Sweetheart. The title refers, in part, to Sputnik 2. Sputnik 2 was the first spaceship to carry a living animal, a dog named Laika, into space. It was rumored that Laika lived for a while, circling alone above the Earth. This was likely not true, but the image of a dog looking longingly out the window at the Earth persists. This image is used by Murakami in Sputnik Sweetheart to represent the human condition of longing and loneliness. We streak soundlessly, alone, across life. We are all truly alone when it comes down to it. We are like Sputniks orbiting around each other in isolation, unable to connect.

In Sputnik Sweetheart the characters are not only alienated from each other, but are also alienated from themselves and experience a type of self obliteration. Sumire tells K that she has "this strange feeling I'm not myself anymore" and appears to melt away "like a chunk of ice left out in the sun." She mysteriously flees the real world. This is where the story becomes Murakami-esque. Has Sumire truly vanished or has she simply had a mental break? Is Murakami using her physical disappearance as a psychological metaphor? We are left to ask ourselves what is real and what is unreal. Perhaps the more accurate question should be, "What is true?" A fictional account can represent the truth of something while still being fiction. I'm reminded of a quote from another novel by Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: "More often than not I've observed that convenient approximations bring you closest to comprehending the true nature of things." Perhaps the physical disappearance of Sumire in the story is a convenient approximation of the true nature of Sumire's psychological condition. Murakami does not always make it clear when he is using a "sign or a symbol" and often requires us to put our own interpretation on things, and this can be uncomfortable. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami draws us into what appears to be a straightforward storyline and mystery, but then he releases us into a place that does not have clear lines.

I anticipated the themes presented in Sputnik Sweetheart since they are common to all of Murakami's works that I have read thus far. He handles these themes in an unusual way. I hesitate to call what Murakami does Magical Realism, since I think it goes beyond that, but I'm not sure what else to call it. I generally find meaning in Murakami's works in a less cognitive way. I have written a bit about this in the essay and book reviews that are linked below.

The shift from straightforward storyline into that fuzzy weird place was a bit disconcerting in Sputnik Sweetheart because it took place quite late in the story. I'm not sure what to make of that yet. As is usual with my reading of Murakami, I will have to let this book and story settle into a less cognitive area of my brain and see what comes of it in future. I anticipate that I will make some odd connections much later when I least expect it!

I recommend Sputnik Sweetheart for those who like to read Japanese literature and/or those specifically interested in the works of Haruki Murakami. I also recommend it for those interested in the themes of loneliness, longing, and alienation and/or those with an interest in psychological metaphor. Those who can not abide story lines with ambiguous or blurry lines of reality might want to take a pass on this.

More of my writing about Murakami is available on my personal essay blog, Tip of the Iceberg. You can find those pieces here if you are interested:


  1. Murakami is my favorite author! I'll have to read your other essays/reviews soon, thanks for sharing those links.

    I agree that magical realism isn't a terribly accurate label for good writing, although many times it's very close. I think of him as having a hefty dose of surrealism, too. He's kind of a genre of his own, ha!

    1. Exactly! There should be an entry for him in the Handbook to Literature along with the other writing techniques. The more I think about it though, I believe the problem I have in referring to Murakami's work as magical realism is in the way we now describe or refer to magical realism. I like the way Bruce Holland Rogers put it when he said, " Magical realism is a kind of realism, but one different from the realism that most of our culture now experiences." This definitely fits Murakami. Rogers' article is, "What Is Magical Realism, Really?" from 2002.

    2. Hmmm I'm curious about the phrase "different from the realism that most of our culture now experiences" - is he speaking of "our" as in American culture? Rather than Japanese culture? I'll have to look up that article later.

      My issue with the magical realism label is that his books always feel one or two steps beyond the realism, but one or two steps shy of fantasy. It's a strange in between space (which I find delightful, but difficult to describe!).

  2. (I think I'm pondering the importance of cultural context within the magical realism label, the way it is defined.)

    1. Definitely! I think the idea is that it is non-objective and also specific to a world view or culture.