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Onyx reviews: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

"Being all alone is like the feeling you get when you stand at the mouth of a large river on a rainy evening and watch the water flow into the sea." These are the words of K., the male narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami's surreal novel of relationships and loneliness, his seventh book to be translated into English.

K. befriended Sumire while they were college students together, before Sumire dropped out to write novels. Naive and disorganized, she has written works with beginnings, and works with endings, but nothing that has both.

The characters in Sputnik Sweetheart form a chain of unrequited love. K. is passionately in love with Sumire, a frequent late-night visitor to his apartment, where they discuss literature and life. Sumire, oblivious to his affection, calls him day or night with an endless stream of questions. So it is to K. that Sumire turns when she falls in love with Miu, an older Korean woman who she meets at a wedding reception.

Miu, a wine importer who sees her husband only on weekends, had a bizarre experience fourteen years earlier that turned her hair snow-white and left her frigid. Unaware of Sumire's affection, Miu takes the would-be novelist under her wing as a personal assistant and traveling companion, believing Sumire must broaden her life experiences if she is to be a writer. Enraptured, Sumire refers to Miu as her Sputnik Sweetheart, 'Sputnik' meaning 'Traveling Companion' in Russian.

While on a buying trip in Europe, a rich acquaintance offers Miu and Sumire the use of his vacation home on a remote Greek island. Weeks later, K. receives a call from Miu; something has happened to Sumire. Would K. come to Greece immediately? He arrives to discover that Sumire has vanished.

While exploring Sumire's disappearance, K. learns the details of the incident from Miu's past that stole part of her essence. Miu believes the encounter, which took place while stranded overnight on a Ferris wheel, split her in two and that somewhere, in another dimension, her other self—her sexual self—exists. Sumire's disappearance occurred shortly after she tells Miu of a pet cat that once vanished mysteriously, like smoke. That same night Sumire decided to act—unsuccessfully—on her attraction to Miu. K. wonders if Sumire has traveled to Miu's other world, where they can be together in the way Sumire desires.

"Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?" Sumire writes shortly before she vanishes. Her name means 'Violet,' taken by her mother from a Mozart song. Sumire is crushed when realizes that the song is about a callous shepherd's daughter who carelessly tramples the flowers in a field. Sumire's mother died when Sumire was very young and her writing is at least partly a quest to synthesize what life might have been like if she had grown up with a mother. Her sudden attraction to Miu awakens her from the fantasy of her fiction to the possibilities of real life.

Sputnik Sweetheart is a charming, mysterious and poignant story that explores the need for human connection. The narrator, dissociated from his family and involved in an unfulfilling and adulterous relationship with the mother of one of his students, cherishes Sumire, even though their bond will never be romantic.

Not many works of fiction by Japanese writers make it across the Pacific. The surprise in reading Murakami is not in discovering how different everyday life is in Japan, but to learn that angst and existential struggle are a part of Japanese culture as well as our own.

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