Thursday, October 15, 2009

262. Sputnik Sweetheart - Haruki Murakami

History: This book was published in 1999.
Plot: The heroine of the novel is an aspiring author named Sumire. "K" the narrator, is in love with Sumire, but she sees him only as a very good friend. They are both writers, however K has become an elementary school teacher. Sumire falls in love with an older woman, Miu, who appears to like Sumire for certain qualities, though she has no time for Sumire's aspirations and ideals. Miu hires Sumire to work in her office, but she does not return Sumire's feelings.
While Sumire is an emotional and spontaneous individual who often appears to be a misfit in society, "K", the narrator, is a person who has through sheer force of will moulded himself into another person, one who integrates seamlessly into the wider society and culture around him, and the transition leaves him emotionally stunted and unable to express his feelings. He restrains himself, does not reveal his feelings to Sumire, and has affairs with other women. One is the mother of one of his students.
When Sumire is also, through her interaction with Miu, forcibly shaped into a person other than she is, the transformation is neither permanent nor successful. Sumire dresses differently, and slowly moves toward the conventional instead of the eccentric. She goes on business travels with Miu around Europe and to a Greek island, Sumire waiting for a chance to tell Miu how she feels. One night on the island, Sumire does make a pass at Miu, who cannot recipocate. Sumire is devastated, and then Sumire disappears. Miu calls "K" who travels to the island to investigate. He finds Sumire's writings in the laptop. He has a feeling that Sumire has fallen into a well (symbolic to Murakami) or fallen into the other side.
He returns to Japan, to another school term. His girlfriend, the mother of one of his students, calls him one day asking him to come to the department store where her son has been caught shoplifting. He intervenes, and befriends the student, called "Carrot". But he breaks it off with the mother.
Miu and K also break ties. He doesn't communicate with her again.
One night he receives a phone call from Sumire, asking him to come down to the phone booth, but it is probably a dream. And the book ends there.
Review: For all its strange and touching beauty, "Sputnik Sweetheart" is not the best of Murakami's novels. Its flaws have mostly to do with the protracted end, which offers a single instance of hope and communication. Against the novel's darker canvas of abandonment and loneliness, it seems too quick, too easily destroyed. But when the narrator philosophically returns to his meditations on loss, it becomes a testament to Murakami's great power: He compels us to examine an emptiness we would rather forget. The principal themes are still familiar ones to the Japanese author's faithful following: the effects of prolonged loneliness and alienation, growing up emotionally stunted in a densely populated and overwhelmingly conformist society, and the conflict between following one's dreams and clamping down on them in order to assimilate into society. The book's major themes include loneliness and people's inability to truly know themselves or the people they love. This is symbolized by the recurring metaphor of the Sputnik satellites orbiting at a distance from the earth.
Opening Line: "In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life."
Closing Line: "The blood must have already, in its own silent way, seeped inside."
Quotes: "The more I think about it, the more I'd like to take a rain check on the topic of me. what I'd like to know more about is the objective reality of things outside myself. How improtant the world outside is to me, how I maintain a sense of equilibrium by coming to terms with it. That's how I'd grasp a clearer sense of who I am."
Rating: Good.

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