Mirror Worlds in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami

Image via Wikipedia

*Warning: Long post, filled with spoilers*

I’m a bit of a Haruki Murakami nut. I only need to read the blurb on the back of the book jacket to fall – hook, line and sinker. It doesn’t matter to me that most of his books feature pretty much the same characters and themes: a passive narrator, an unattainable woman, a quest, a pervading sense of loneliness, endless musical references and cats which do weird things, like talking or disappearing into trees. Sometimes, I think it would be fun to create a ‘Haruki Murakami Plot Generator’, much like the ‘Chetan Bhagat Plot Generator’. One only needs to change the names of the characters, the exact nature of the quest, the kind of music the protagonists listen to and the number of cats featured in the story and voila! A Haruki Murakami novel is ready.

I hope you can tell that I’m only half-serious here. I do genuinely adore Murakami. His plots, with their enigmatic women, mobius strip plots and unresolved storylines have the ability to fill me with melancholy and dread at the same time. There’s never anything overtly menacing in his stories: no malignant ghosts and monsters with faces that could turn people to stone, and no gory, graphic scenes of violence. But he maintains, throughout, a sense of incipient threat – not of physical harm, but one that can cause minds to unbalance. He does this by rarely having lucid explanations and clear endings. To the human mind, there is nothing scarier than doubt and uncertainty (which is why we invented God and his/her supporting cast), and Murakami is a genius at throwing his characters into a Godless, nameless blank – a void or a doppelganger of life as we know it. There are dark hints that worlds and dimensions exist beyond our knowledge and comprehension, and these worlds are separated only by a mirror, as one of the characters in Sputnik Sweetheart says.

And that nicely brings us to Book # 24, Sputnik Sweetheart. It’s a sweet, short book – even a slow reader can finish it in about a couple of days, and it’s gripping from start to finish. The story is narrated by K, a typical Murakami protagonist with his love for cooking and jazz and his overwhelming attraction to an unattainable woman. Said unattainable woman is Sumire, a Kerouac-quoting, chain-smoking, budding novelist in an oversized men’s coat and boots, who is herself in love with an unattainable woman, Miu, a businesswoman. Miu is 17 years older than the 22 year old Sumire, and the two women form a warm bond the very first time they meet. Sumire, is at that time, struggling to write a whole novel. As K, her best friend, says:

“Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end.”

K consoles himself by having an affair with the mother of one of his students, a relationship that doesn’t give him the love that he’s looking for, but offers a degree of comfort and warmth.

Miu, meanwhile, offers Sumire a job as her secretary, a decently-paid, undemanding job that will support the latter’s desire to write without having to worry about money and time. From Sumire’s point of view, the job also has the added attraction of Miu’s company, with whom she’s already violently in love. It’s a love that shakes her world and sweeps her off her feet. In the wonderfully evocative opening paragraph, K says:

“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.”

He isn’t exaggerating. This love compels Sumire to abandon her directionless, undisciplined lifestyle. She gives up smoking, starts keeping regular hours, wears high heels, makeup and matching socks and does a good job of being Miu’s secretary. The only problem is that she just can’t seem to write anymore.

Sumire and Miu take off for Europe on a business trip, where they become friendly with a British writer, who invites them to make use of his cottage on a tiny, sparsely-populated Greek island. The duo are only too delighted and spend four blissful days of eating, taking long walks, swimming in the clear water and basking in the sun before things go horribly wrong. Sumire disappears, “like smoke” and Miu asks K to come and help figure out what happened to her. Once he gets there, K finds that Sumire has indeed vanished without a trace and the key to her disappearance is an incident in Miu’s past.  As he finds out from Sumire’s private documents, Miu is frigid: she has not had sexual relations with anyone since a singular, frightening incident fourteen years ago. Miu was living in Switzerland at the time and one night, having been abandoned on a Ferris wheel at closing time, she looks at her apartment in the distance and sees the light is on. Inside is Ferdinando, someone she has met recently and whom she abhors, and this man is naked and sitting on her bed. Then there appears a woman, and to Miu’s horror, she sees that it’s herself. The two – Ferdinando and the other Miu – proceed to have sex in a slow, deliberate manner and Miu – the one stuck on the Ferris wheel – goes into shock. When she’s rescued the next day, she finds that not only is she covered with mysterious abrasions on her arms and face, but ever single strand of hair on her head has turned white overnight. Since that day, Miu has been incapable of giving her body to anyone, even her husband and Sumire finds that this is irreversible when she tries to make love to her, only to find her stiff and unresponsive. It’s not that Miu doesn’t like her; she’s willing to try whatever Sumire wants, but her body refuses to respond to Miu’s caresses.

Perhaps that is the clue to the mystery of Sumire’s disappearance. As she notes:

“I’m in love with Miu. With the Miu on this side…but I also love the Miu on the other side. The moment this thought struck me, it was like I could hear myself – with an audible creak – splitting in two. As if Miu’s own split became a rupture that had taken hold of me.”

What is Murakami trying to say through this weird, wonderful story? Perhaps that we should be true to ourselves and our natures, instead of trying to mould ourselves to certain expectations? Sumire has always been a free spirit, doing and saying exactly what she wants. Then she meets Miu and tries to fit into her world and become more like her. She causes her soul to split, and she finds that she can no longer write, the one thing that she can do almost instinctively. Similarly, Miu’s split can perhaps be explained by her life before the incident. She had forced herself into a certain disciplined lifestyle because she badly wanted to be a concert pianist. She refused to give in to her impulses. And then she met Ferdinando in Switzerland, someone she realized was trying to sleep with her and her brain instantly warned her off him. But maybe she was, deep down, attracted to him, and what she saw from the Ferris wheel that night was her other self making love to the man. The split of her soul had occurred – her impulsive, natural self had gone off to live in a world where it could do as it pleased. And it was in search of this natural, sensual Miu that Sumire too went off into the other world.

There could be another, slightly different interpretation too. Perhaps Murakami is writing about the unreasonableness of love and how we can’t govern our desires and make peace with them. Miu desires and abhors Ferdinando in equal measure and she can’t reconcile the two. In Sumire’s case, her love drives her to lose herself in Miu and forget who she really is. K too, briefly struggles with getting lost in the other world, but he manages to stay, unsplit, in this world. This may be because he had accepted that his love for Sumire will remain unrequited and he has somehow managed to live his life with that fact.

Then there is the question of loneliness. All three characters are lonely in their own ways, their unique experiences with this feeling making them even lonelier. Miu has lost part of herself and nobody else can comprehend what it’s like to live like that. Sumire feels lost and lonely despite being with Miu, because she misses living her life naturally and instinctively. K is lonely because he was an over-sensitive boy neglected by his family and who eventually built emotional defences around himself. Only Sumire ever managed to breach that wall and then, she too disappeared.

I suppose this post can go on and on…in fact, I know it can. My copy of Sputnik Sweetheart is covered in scribbles and pen marks, and I haven’t mentioned her half the things that I noted down on the back of the book. I don’t want to drive off the few readers that I have, but if anyone does want to discuss this book further and nitpick and point out the holes in my theory, I’m only to happy to oblige.


3 thoughts on “Mirror Worlds in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart

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