Chasing Chapters \\ Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

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Chasing Chapters is a series devoted to reviewing (and quoting excessively from) books I’ve enjoyed or been inspired by, to hopefully give you new recommendations for your reading list.

I’m back with another book review, following hot in the footsteps of Kafka on the Shore! I promise, this will be the last Murakami book for a while, until I finish Norwegian Wood, which has been rather enchanting so far.

Overall, Sputnik Sweetheart was a far easier read than Kafka on the Shore, reading like a fever dream crossed with every 2000s overly-filtered indie romance film (a la 500 Days of Summer). At a breezy 235 pages, it was less heavy on magical realism, but instead doubled down on beautifully descriptive & immersive prose.

It’s a poetic and melancholic story about love, emotional entanglements, and letting go (with or without losing yourself in the process).

I sailed through the pages of this novel in just a few hours, partially due to its length, but also a burning desire to see if our characters were able to find any form of closure, happiness, or both. As an idealist and hopeless romantic myself, the narrator felt too relatable, and I found myself rooting for his unrequited love to finally be reciprocated.

a quick summary

Before I spoil the whole story, I’ll dole out this deliberately misleading plot summary:

A struggling writer, a queer love triangle, and a Mediterranean vacation gone wrong – what’s not to love about Sputnik Sweetheart? As much as I’ve made it sound like a trashy straight-to-DVD film, it’s far from that.

Sumire, a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl/MPDG and aspiring novelist, falls in love with Miu, an older, married woman for whom she works as a personal assistant. The narrator, K, is Sumire’s friend, and just so happens to have been secretly in love with her for years. Miu and Sumire then go on a vacation to Greece, Sumire makes advances on Miu but gets rejected, then disappears into an alternate world, resurfacing months later and rejoining K. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, but not in a frustrating way.

The novel’s title came from a conversation between Miu and Sumire about American author Jack Kerouac, in which Miu mixes up the words ‘beatnik’* and ‘Sputnik’. Fittingly enough, Sputnik means ‘traveling companion’, which would later aptly describe the 2 women’s relationship.

*Beatniks were members of a social movement pioneered by Jack Kerouac in the 1950s, who subscribed to an anti-materialistic lifestyle.

Themes include personal identity (or the loss of), unrequited love, and conformity. The juxtaposition between the characters further highlights these themes:

  • Miu lost a significant part of herself during an unwanted sexual encounter, and spent the subsequent years feeling hollow. Sumire on the other hand, started off with a strong personal identity, then changed herself to fit in with Miu, but eventually rediscovered herself after disappearing in Greece and entering an alternate world
  • K silently orbited around Sumire for years as a dutiful friend and hid his feelings for her, while Sumire attempted to act on her feelings for Miu, although her advances ended up being rejected (but at least she tried)
  • Miu was a tragic character who went through the motions of life without putting her heart in it, and tried to fit in by dyeing her hair black (which had turned white after that traumatic experience in her youth), although it’s unclear if she was ever truly happy. K was the opposite, starting off life in a family where he didn’t fit in, but eventually maturing and finding his place in the world
quintessential Murakami

Alternate worlds, manic pixie dream girls, and sexually-repressed narrators are hallmarks of Murakami novels, at least from the 2.5 books (let’s round it up to 3) I’ve read so far. Whether I decide to read the rest of his works solely to observe this trend remains to be seen.

At any rate, that makes 3 of 3 books in which his female characters are written as stereotypical MPDGs, and it does frustrate me that his female characters often lack agenda, instead serving as plot devices to help the narrator reach some epiphany.

They’re always pretty little waifs with troubled backgrounds and their heads in the clouds, often seeking sexual liberation in the arms of the narrator (through terribly-written sex scenes). I’ve read some comments suggesting that Murakami blatantly self-inserts himself as the narrator in most of the stories, and I can unfortunately see it being true.

Despite my criticisms, I do still love how descriptive his writing style is, and he has the power to transport readers to absolutely anywhere, whether it’s a place in the real world or one of his alternate universes. I personally enjoyed how Murakami drew from his own travels & memories in Greece when describing Sumire and Miu’s trip, and I’ve since added Greece to my travel bucket list (oops).

I also love how powerfully and grandiosely he describes emotions. Take for instance, the novel’s punchy opening paragraph:

In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains—flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado’s intensity doesn’t abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and everything, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be 17 years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all ended. Almost.

It almost makes you wish that you too, could fall for someone that intensely and wholly, even if you might end up crashing and burning…or maybe that’s just the hopeless romantic in me speaking.

my favourite Sputnik Sweetheart quotes

Whenever I read e-books, I annotate the text with near-religious fervour, and always have a my Notes app open, ready to compile my favourite quotes.

Here’s my top 10 quotes from this novel (with no context, and not in chronological order):

1. This Sputnik metaphor is beautifully nihilistic

And it came to me then. That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.

2. If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?

There we were, sitting quietly on the edge of the world, and no one could see us. That’s the way it felt—like Sumire and I were the only ones here. There was nothing else we had to think about. I didn’t want to move, didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to stay this way for ever. I knew that was impossible—our life here was just a momentary illusion, and someday reality would yank us back to the world we came from. But until that time came I wanted to enjoy each day to the fullest, without worrying about anything.

3. Murakami has a knack for making even the most inane things feel magical:

When we left the restaurant, the sky was a brilliant splash of colours. The kind of air that felt like if you breathed it in, your lungs would be dyed the same shade of blue. Tiny stars began to twinkle.

4. Serving up ‘coming of age indie movie’ vibes

In the midst of this illogical dream—or uncertain wakefulness—I thought about Sumire. Like some documentary of ages past, fragments sprang to mind of the times and places we’d shared. In the bustle of the airport, passengers dashing here and there, the world I shared with Sumire seemed shabby, helpless, uncertain. Neither of us knew anything that really mattered, nor did we have the ability to rectify that. There was nothing solid we could depend on. We were almost boundless zeros, just pitiful little beings swept from one kind of oblivion to another.

5. Ah, to be young and falling in love

The day after the wedding, a Monday, was rainy. The rain began to fall just after midnight and continued without a stop till dawn. A soft, gentle rain that darkly dampened the spring earth and quietly stirred up the nameless creatures living in it.

The thought of meeting Miu again thrilled Sumire, and she found it hard to concentrate. She felt as though she were standing alone on the summit of a hill, the wind swirling around her.

6. Error 404: Love not found

Maybe it’s just hiding somewhere. Or gone on a trip and forgotten to come home. But falling in love is always a pretty crazy thing. It might appear out of the blue and just grab you. Who knows—maybe even tomorrow.

7. Such pretty imagery!

As we made our way up, the lights of the harbour became smaller and further away. All the activities of the people who’d been right beside me were absorbed into that anonymous line of lights. It was an impressive sight, something I wanted to cut out with scissors and pin to the wall of my memory.

8. Goodbye love 😦

Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again.

9. Yet another healthy dose of nihilism

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?

10. Okay, it’s starting to get depressing…

So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us—that’s snatched right out of our hands—even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.

final thoughts

I loved this book in all its romantic, introspective, and occasionally nihilistic glory. I didn’t particularly identify with any of the characters, but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch them change, fall in & out of love, and eventually find their own places in the world.

Maybe we’re all just satellites on our own predestined journeys, and we’re ‘fated’ to cross paths with certain people for only a short period of time. And it saddens me to think that certain connections or relationships will only ever be ephemeral, hard as we may try to hold on to the person or as much as we may love them. I guess that’s just the nature of love and life.

But as an eternal optimist, I’m still waiting for my own Sputnik Sweetheart (hopefully without a bittersweet ending or any of the heartache), and that elusive spark of falling in love:

In the instant Miu touched her hair, Sumire fell in love, as if she were crossing a field when bang! a bolt of lightning zapped her right in the head. Something like an artistic revelation.

In Murakami’s own words, Sputnik Sweetheart is a “story of abnormal things happening to normal people.” Between the mellow love triangle, characters struggling to find their own identity, and a wanderlust-inducing Greek vacation, I’d definitely recommend this quick read. Overall rating? 7/10.

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