My first Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart

Since the return of uni semester I’ve been working a lot, and haven’t had the chance to review or read many novels. I’ve read two; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was my first project, and it didn’t take long to read. For some reason I haven’t yet established I think it might be overrated, but that will come in a later review. The subject of this review in contrast, is not a book I was heavily recommended, or one who I’d spent years knowing I should get around to reading, like Portrait. Instead, I read it on a whim. When my mother came home from New Zealand recently, where she went to visit grieving family, she brought home a book she’d purchased at the airport. It’s a simple little edition of Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami.

I had never read Murakami before, and to be honest have not done enough to step outside of the western literature bubble generally, but I am very glad I did. My favourite books aren’t necessarily entertaining, well written, or relatable. In an adjective I would say they are thought-provoking. This book was certainly that, and it was a wonderful introduction to Murakami’s work.

Before I go on, Sputnik Sweetheart was incredible. I loved it. I hadn’t sat down to read anything in a week or two as work had me snowed under, but when I put on a playlist and sat down to read this book, I read the first 120 pages before forcing myself to bed as it was getting late. I got up the next day and read the rest. The prose had me captured, but my experience wasn’t built on readability. My interest was built on the insights the author and the characters had about the world and their relationships with each other, the way those relationships were portrayed got me thinking about intimacy and human connection. It was a wonderful approach for Murakami to take only 3 characters with deeply intimate feelings for each other and take me through their somewhat fantastical experience, and I treasured it. The concept of the novel is that a young Japanese girl, Sumire, falls in love with a woman much older, Miu, and explores what that means with the main male character, but she then goes on holiday to a Greek island with Miu, where things get both more intimate, and a lot more complicated.

The novel builds to a climax that leaves you wondering what just happened, and it takes you through interesting ideas along the way. My favourite chapter was written through the character of Sumire, she had written a document titled “Have you ever seen somebody get shot without bleeding?” and honestly at first it seemed she kind of harps on her insight like a drunk person who thinks they’ve come up with a very clever way of explaining something, but in truth I really liked it. I didn’t get it straight away, but by the end of the chapter I understood that it was written in the context of making a sexual move on someone who she wasn’t sure would reciprocate. In her case, a person of the same gender too, adding another element of risk. The way Sumire explained this to herself was that there is simply no way for sex and love not to be messy. After all, have you ever seen somebody get shot without bleeding? It seemed Murakami might even be having a jab at those writers who opt to depict love and intimacy without all the blood.

This struck me as thoughtful and true. Intimacy, especially the deep and tender intimacy described in Sputnik Sweetheart, simply does not happen without some element of fear, rejection, vulnerability or hurt feelings. You don’t just wander into bed with each other and lie together in fear of the end of the world. That kind of intimacy is built on overcoming adversity together and on deep understanding and trust. The very first piece of adversity you face is admitting you like each other, because honestly, that is a very vulnerable thing to do, and vulnerability is the only way to really build trust. In my experience, this vulnerability isn’t compatible with a bloodless process, and even when it is ‘uncomplicated’, it is still really hard. I saw this theme come up again and again throughout the novel, and the way it explored intimacy in relation to sexual desire really got me thinking.

The other day a close friend and I were admiring Pete Samu on instagram. He’s a back rower for the Wallabies, a magnificent physical specimen, and a very attractive man. At the time we got talking about sexual desire. I said, to general agreement, that even though I really like looking at Pete, there was a dissonance between that understanding of him as an attractive person and actual sexual desire. Murakami’s only male character says early in the book “Sexual desire doesn’t make sense, it’s just there”. I agree, and he goes further when describing Miu and Sumire’s sexual encounter, saying Miu’s mind and person were aroused, but her body was just giving her nothing. It was the same when we were admiring Pete. At the time I thought “There’s this, but then there’s real sexual desire, the kind that can eat you up inside. With women (for me, as a heterosexual man), there’s more of a ‘I was put on this planet to have sex’ kind of pull factor.” Maybe it was because I had just finished the book that morning, because I found Murakami’s exploration of sexual desire really revealing and insightful. His focus on the differences between platonic love and even romantic love and sexual desire itself, especially between Miu and Sumire, showed a really powerful understanding of intimacy, and it has been turning over in my head since.

Murakami also explores loss, and what it is to be attached to someone and what it is to be lonely. At times the novel can be a bit fluffy about this, and he does go to pains to lament, writing “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?” In this he seems to step away from the things about intimacy we agree on, as he does seem to imply that you can only feel that true burning powerful intimacy with maybe one person, and that’s if your lucky. It’s a miracle if they feel that for you, and a once in a generation event for sexual desire to then follow that and flow both ways. Here I don’t think we agree any more. Something I feel I’ve learned as I have met more and more new people is that if you work really hard to overcome that adversity at the beginning of a relationship, people will want to be with you. As Murakami says, “Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning…” You know what that means? Millions of potential soul mates in the world, all yearning for someone like you to just do something brave. Murakami is right that a lot of the time, not all the elements for that powerful connection between people will be there, but he’s also shown a belief that when you choose not to be squeamish about the blood, you can have truly incredible and memorable experiences, even if they don’t end the way you thought or wanted, just the way Sumire did.

What I got from this novel was the thought that even though Miu and Sumire’s experience was not what they wanted or expected, it was deeply valuable to them. To experience another person, and to experience life with them on that level is special, even when it doesn’t go ‘right’. It certainly seemed an experience Miu would never forget, and having more experiences like that could hardly hurt. I highly recommend you read it, and I’m deeply looking forward to reading more Murakami, his perspective on the world and the way he put it in writing really captivated me, and I’m hoping he can put in a repeat performance.

To finish on a lighter note, the funniest paragraph in the novel by a lot seemed very out of place, but still made me laugh. The main male character, K, is having a conversation with a supermarket security guard, and they are talking about equality.

The guard says, “How can people all be equal? Consider this – 110 Million people are elbowing one another out of the way every day in Japan. Try making all of them equal. What would that be like?”

K responds drily, “China.”

In a very serious tone, the guard responds “Yeah, Hell on earth.”

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