My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"[...] I could hear the cats lapping up my brain. Three lithe cats, surrounding my broken head, slurping up the mushy gray soup within. The tips of their red, rough tongues licked the soft folds of my mind."
My third book by Haruki Murakami and the best so far. Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) comes with a misleading blurb on the back cover. It says "love story combined with a detective story" and is probably aimed at romantic mystery readers. There is not one iota of detective story here. Yes, we have a great love story, and there is a mystery, but one of a more serious, transcendent kind.
The story is narrated by K, a primary school teacher in his mid-twenties. He is in love with Sumire, but she - an aspiring writer and an unusual character overall, taken to calling K on the phone in the middle of the night and asking philosophical questions - treats him as a friend rather than a romantic interest. Sumire falls in love with Miu, a much older woman in the wine import business. Sumire and Miu go on a business/pleasure trip to Europe where Sumire disappears. K is summoned by Miu to a Greek island to help search for Sumire. All this is stated in the cover blurb so I am not giving any spoilers here.
The story is really interesting, well written, and captivating, but is likely just a shell to carry some deeper meaning. This is quite an enigmatic novel and I had thought it would be fun to attempt deciphering the author's design, but I failed. Let me explain: the following passage seems to be crucial in the novel: Sumire calls K before dawn and asks
"What I want to know is, what's the difference between a sign and a symbol?"K explains that both sign and symbol refer to an equivalence relation between two things but then he describes the semiotic difference in a somewhat unconventional way: in the case of a symbol the relation points in one direction only.
Well, I spotted three instances of unidirectionality in the story: first and the most obvious one is of metafictional nature. Mr. Murakami constructs a sort of alternative reality in the novel. The reality is mapped to the story, but not the other way around. The second is the unrequited nature of the characters' love for each other: K loves Sumire and Sumire loves Miu (there is more, yet it is not essential), but the lovees do not love the lovers back. Third, there is quite a wonderful scene in the novel when one of the characters coexists with a sort of their alter ego, and their interaction is unidirectional. But none of these three cases has much to do with symbols, so my analysis is most likely poppycock.
My inability to "understand" the novel - if there is indeed anything to understand there; a work of art can be just about itself and not be a symbol for anything else - does not diminish the beauty and poetry of the story itself. If I were forced to define what the story is about, I would say it is a about a young woman who seeks transcendence in life and visits the other side. By the way, Sumire is an extremely well-drawn character, life-like and believable. So is K. Maybe not Miu, despite her mysterious past.
There are stories within the story, some fit the mood wonderfully, some less so, which includes the cats that I mentioned in the epigraph. Anyway, I have found Sputnik Sweetheart a very good read and I enjoyed the alternative reality feel, which is - as I understand - Mr. Murakami's trademark. Maybe one day I will read his longer works...
Three and three quarter stars.
View all my reviews