One only appreciates an old book when one discovers something new in each re-reading. Sputnik Sweetheart was never a real favorite, a probable contender in my top 3 Murakami novels but never really making it. While it was the book that introduced me to Murakami, it didn’t grab me. Re-reading it has opened my eyes to the wonder and beauty of the book. It’s a novel that is like a good poem that uses a brilliantly extended metaphor. I used to think this book was about a girl’s unrequited love for a woman 17 years her senior, and a man (the narrator’s) unrequited love for the said girl. However, that is me being superficial, that’s me missing the point. Yes, Sputnik Sweetheart is in reference to Sumire’s nickname for Miu, the woman she loved. But that’s not the heart of this book. This could be considered as a coming-of-age of a writer.
This novel revolves around an extended metaphor discussed by the narrator, K in one of his conversations with Sumire:
“[In ancient China] at the entrance of the city they’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones up inside. They hoped that by commemorating the dead soldiers in this way they would continue to guard their town…When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats and sprinkle their blood on the gate. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried-out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive…Writing novels is much the same. You gather up the bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make if a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.”
Never Slitting Throats
Most writers would probably agree that experiencing life breathes believability into your prose. Some say that one cannot talk about love or desire if one has not experienced it. If you try, it’s most likely going to end up as banal or cliché. Our narrator points this out to Sumire that she needs to live in order to write. It’s not enough to want it and to write beautiful lines while trapped inside a room day in day out. She needs to live. She needs to feel passion and as K would put it she would need “Time and experience.” Indeed it was time and experience which brought Sumire to her journey to the other side. How many throats must she slit? The reader can only guess.
Her lack of life experience (particularly her minimal experience of slitting throats) does not escape anyone. Despite her Jack-Kerouac-inspired prose she is too naïve and too young to write anything. As Miu points out:
“At this stage in your life I don’t think you’re going to write anything worthwhile, no matter how much time you put into your novels…You’ve got the talent. I’m sure someday you’ll be an extraordinary writer. I’m not just saying this, I truly believe it. You have the natural ability within you. But now’s not the time. The strength you need to open that door isn’t quite there. “
While Miu’s words echo K’s, what is interesting here is the use of “door.” throughout this novel Murakami plays around the China gates story, emphasizing the other side, a door and slitting throats. Like a framework, we follow Sumire as she opens the door, walk through it, go to the other side, and slit throats. Something I missed the first time I read this novel.
It is in opening the door and falling in love with Miu that Sumire finds what’s lacking. The process somehow is reminiscent of a recovery process wherein recognition gets the wheels turning.
“It’s not just that I can’t write. What really upsets me is I don’t have confidence any more in the act of writing itself. I read the stuff I wrote not long ago, and it’s boring. What could I have been thinking? It’s like looking across the room at some filthy socks tossed on the floor. I feel awful, realizing all the time and energy I wasted.”
There is something unnerving about discovering how little we know of life and what lies on the other side of what we know. For most of us, this is unavoidable. We get our hearts broken, our expectations destroyed. In the novel, Murakami takes his metaphor to the surreal. He explores life’s journey with the unexplained, but keeping it believable and grounded in reality.
Through the Door
Murakami is literal in his portrayal of Sumire going to the other side of life. He offers no explanation and I don’t think the reader needs any. The magic of this book is its point of view (POV). It’s written through the eyes of K, what he knows and what he is told. Like K we can only trust Sumire and believe that she went through the door and has gone back. The only clue that the reader is given of Sumire’s desire to cross the door is on the documents K found on her computer.
“One question remains, if this side is actually the other side what about me, the person who shares the same temporal and spatial plane with her (Miu)? Who in the world am I?”
I know this quote doesn’t explain things but it captures the essence of the two sides of the door, wherein those two sides create the whole. Miu is incomplete, and Sumire realizes her own broken self, that she has yet to slit throats, to let the blood flow – to say she is living. And it is in the above excerpt that we capture the beginning of Sumire’s journey through the door.
Each one’s Journey
Sputnik Sweetheart is Sumire’s story, but our narrator allows us to look into his own life and journey as well as that of Miu. Their lives are like echoes to Sumire’s. Miu and K are in their own journeys navigating the lonely world and deciding how to go about it. Should they cross the door? Should they slit throats? Or should they remain as empty shells? No matter the decision [or the outcome], we continue to live in this world waiting like half-opened gates with or without blood from the dogs.
Sputnik Sweetheart however is a hopeful book. While it can be thick with loneliness, our hero doesn’t disappoint as she calls our narrator in the middle of the night:
“And I really wanted to see you, too. When I couldn’t see you any more, I realized that. It was a clear as if the planets all of a sudden lines up in a row for me. I really need you. You’re a part of me; I’m a part of you. You know, somewhere – I’m not all sure where – I think I cut something’s throat. Sharpening my knife, my heart a stone. Symbolically, like making a gate in China.”
Sputnik Sweetheart is an easier read compared to Murakami’s other novels. It’s as easy as Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun in terms of storyline. But this particular book successfully pulls together into a tight bow its metaphor to create a story that is both surreal and real.
Reading Challenge update: 7 of 7