Sputnik Sweetheart is Murakami’s 9th novel, preceded by his astonishing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’ve followed Murakami since Wind-Up, but went back and read A Wild Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood. My favorites are Wind-Up and 1Q84. I’ve also enjoyed a couple of volumes of his short stories.
Otoh, my least favorites are Norwegian Wood and this one, Sputnik Sweetheart. My basic problem with these two is that they are mainly love stories, romances. Maybe they have a bit of a Murakami dreaminess and weirdness, but still – And I’m allergic to romance as a basic plot line because by itself it’s really just plain boring. I don’t mind a bit of romance for texture in a crime novel or literary fiction of some kind. Otoh, something weird usually happens in Murakami novels so we continue reading.
Remember the Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby”? – 1968 – “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Murakami’s themes are close to universal in the 20th/21st centuries.
The loneliness of youthful existential angst, dreamy otherworldliness, suspense, sex, music, cats, books, and wells – the usual Murakami motifs are all here along with a lot of fear and a good smattering of the occult.
In this case – the young male 1st person protagonist is in love with the completely eself-centered little air-head and wanna-be novelist, Sumire. But Sumire is in love with Miu, a married woman 17 years older than she is. Miu wants Sumire to change and so she does – she stops smoking, cleans up, wears nice clothes, and goes to work for Miu – and she develops writer’s block.
Much of the first part of the book is simply the narrator relating what Sumire is doing in relation to him – phone conversations, seeing her briefly here and there. She tells him what and how she’s doing at length. He hurts a lot because of his love for her. She uses him for her own purposes.
The rest of the book is split between letters and long spiels from Sumire and Miu creating secondary first person accounts. These also go back and forth chronologically – sometimes a bit confusing but not usually.
It’s pretty apparent why Murakami is popular with the young people of Japan – he writes at about their level – about their feelings of loneliness, alienation and powerlessness – trying to grow up, possibilities vs realities, getting acquainted with sex in thoughts and deeds and it’s thrown together with some drinking and jazz.
Sumire goes to Rome with Miu – more separation and Miu shows herself to be a pretentious little twit. Meanwhile as the narrator feels sorry for himself he also has a life of sorts – a job teaching which he enjoys and a married girlfriend for sex. Everyone is “cool.” And then they go to Paris and finally some Greek island.
The structure is pretty strictly linear. The metaphors are typical Murakami dreamy but not particularly original (this may be due to the translation).
This book is almost entirely “tell” and not “show” and what little happens is slow, but finally at about 1/3 way through something happens – the narrator is called by Miu to come to the Greek island because something has happened to Sumire- oh shades of The Magus (Fowles, 1965). The trip to Greece takes a good 30 pages of nothing happening and then he has to wait there describing Greek history and geography – it feels like filler.
Finally, he finds out that Sumire has something to do with the police station – and then he and Miu eat – he realizes how beautiful she is and is attracted to her – another several pages – this is what builds suspense – and where will the plot go? – I don’t really care but Murakami is so easy to see through that it’s interesting for a novice like myself.
And the line – “I was in someone else’s dream.” lol – I’ve read a bit too much Murakami I think!
Okay at about 1/2 way we find out that Sumire has disappeared (“just like smoke”). lol – sorry. Several pages of back-story – how it was with Miu and Sumire together traveling.
And then here come the cats. – oh my, yes. “The cat saw something I couldn’t see!” Many pages of cat-behavior, weird cat behavior. Are we supposed to compare the missing cat in one of the stories to Sumire? “Now everything seems significant.” – disappearance “like smoke” used 3 times.
I suppose it’s that Murakami is so detailed and realistic in the set up, that when he forewarns you, sneaks in and then whams you with the weirdness you tend to buy into it. Let’s see what happens.
Sumire has been missing for 4 days. And now maybe I’m interested but still – I know the tone on which it will end, if not the details. They’ll find Sumire but she won’t know where she’s been.
Oh well – Miu tells the narrator what transpired the day Sumire disappeared and later we get the typed notes of Sumire. Still later we get the background on Miu.
Rather interesting metaphor of satellites with lonely people. The word “sputnik” apparently means “traveling companion” according to Murakami’s translation, but I’ll be it’s more like “traveling comrade” to the Russians.