Still, the time I spent with her was more precious than anything. She helped me forget the undertone of loneliness in my life. She expanded the outer edges of my world, helped me draw a deep, soothing breath. Only Sumire could do that for me.
Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami
I remember the first time I encountered Murakami. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and I was spending the summer in Seoul visiting relatives. On my uncle’s bookshelf there was a copy of the Korean translation of Kafka on the Shore. The bookshelf was in a room that was my bedroom during my stay.
I remember gliding my fingers over the spine, reading the premise on the back cover, and sliding the book back into place. It sounded intriguing, but I didn’t trust my deteriorating Korean comprehension skills to be able to make sense of it.
Years later, I still haven’t read Kafka on the Shore, in Korean or otherwise, but I have accompanied Murakami’s characters through unexpected phone calls, ear fetishes, encounters with enigmatic, unconventionally attractive women, and many other motifs that reoccur in Murakami’s world.
Those who are not fans of Murakami complain about the overuse of these motifs. “Can’t he do something else? Doesn’t he have any other ideas?” I’ve heard these complaints from acquaintances who enjoyed their first Murakami work, tolerated their second, and had the magic wear off for them by their third.
For me, these motifs make diving back into Murakami like visiting an old friend, albeit a quirky, lonely one who spends more time with books than people. And I would attribute the repetition of the motifs as proof that all these stories exist in a preferable, parallel reality (another of Murakami’s favourite motifs), rather than the author’s lack of new ideas.
I received Sputnik Sweetheart for Christmas, from a close friend who shares my love of Murakami. And, true to form, it contains characters with literary aspirations, pianists, unrequited love, and numerous other Murakami tropes.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I loved Sputnik. At barely 200 pages, it made for a quick read that easily distracted me from the crowded, uncomfortable reality of my morning commutes.
One of the factors that set Sputnik apart for me was the characters. There are only three key players in Sputnik: the narrator, identified only as “K”, Sumire, and Miu. At the surface level, all three are simple reconstructions of the usual Murakami tropes: the introverted protagonist, his quirky love interest, and the mysterious, wealthy older woman.
But as I continued to read on, the characters developed into more than the usual tropes. I’m not sure why, but loneliness and unrequited affections, often part of the pervading atmosphere in Murakami’s world, felt more acute with these three characters than with any other Murakami cast.
K felt lonelier to me than any other Murakami protagonist. In fact, he didn’t even feel like a protagonist. When I was learning about different types of narrators in elementary school, I remember my teacher struggling to come up with an example of a second-person narrator (maybe other than Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) or simply telling us that there was no such thing as a second-person narrator. For me, K, while not exactly a second-person narrator, certainly felt like a 1.5-person narrator. His story revolves exclusively around Sumire. Unlike many other Murakami protagonists, who seem to be magnets for interesting occurrences and attractive women, once Sumire was removed from K’s life, there was no one else.
Maybe I also felt K’s unrequited feelings for Sumire more acutely because they simply are more unrequited than any other such relationship. K loves and desires Sumire, but Sumire desires no one but Miu, and appears to have no desire for men in general. Yet K remains a faithful friend to Sumire, and acts unselfishly to maintain their relationship, which is, to him, the most important in his life. K’s inherent unselfishness made him, to me, one of the most intriguing Murakami protagonists, despite his otherwise lack of personality.
YES OR NO?: A definite YES. Even as a seasoned reader of Murakami’s work, I was completely invested in Sputnik as I read it. I’d also recommend it as an introduction to Murakami, as the plot and characters are both fairly easy to understand, and it is light on the surrealistic elements, while still familiarizing you with all the usual tropes.