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
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
"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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