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 all, 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 seventeen years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all wound up. Almost.
Thus begins this novel by Murakami which muses upon the question of love. It’s about love and death and hits you straight in the heart. It starts off as being light and carefree, then propels us into a mysterious drama. However, it is not a dark book, let’s just say that it’s rather difficult to classify. But then again, books by this inscrutable Japanese author always are.
The son of literature professors and passionate about music and cats, he once ran a jazz bar in Tokyo together with his wife. As soon as he had reached a level of success, he began travelling in Italy, Greece and the United States. It was while in Rome that he wrote Norwegian Wood: a literary event which sold two million copies in one year. Following this, he moved to the United States where he taught literature and then moved back to Japan. In addition to writing, Murakami is a dedicated runner who has taken part in around twenty marathons and trains every single day. He is also responsible for translating the works of such luminaries like Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving and Raymond Carver and considers the latter as being his teacher and literary mentor. “His works are rooted in everyday life that subtly derails normality” and “reveal a kind of surrealism which is very refreshing”. Well, he sure knows how to disorient us.
Now, a warning before I go on: if you haven’t read the book yet, it would be better if you did before reading on because I am going to reveal the plot and try to figure out its secrets. Okay, so it isn’t exactly a thriller, but it isn’t only thrillers which hold surprises within.
The story is narrated by a friend of Sumire’s, her classmate from university and then elementary school teacher. At that time, Sumire tries with all her might to be a writer. But, despite her total dedication and strong determination, she isn’t successful at it. Sumire is incapable of writing anything which has a beginning or an end.
What she wrote “resembled a patchwork quilt sewn by a group of stubborn old ladies, each with her own tastes and complaints, working in grim silence.”
I loved the the beginning of the book, then, when Sumire disappears on the Greek island, bit by bit I began to really dislike it. At times it almost seemed like a horror book. At that point, I couldn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t understand why the characters fall into a depression which leaves them bereft of their will to live. A dangerous division is created which takes them to another dimension, one which strips them of any warmth in life; where it is impossible to separate dreams from reality.
I didn’t understand the illness that afflicts Miu, the woman who Sumire is in love with, or how this affliction is passed on to the others. I was angry with Murakami, but then in the end… I really liked it.
There is something spiritual about this book. It seems as though Murakami (here is his website) doesn’t want us to understand exactly what happened. He prefers to create a shroud of mystery and Miu is without a doubt the most mysterious character. She is beautiful, charming and sophisticated and, in some ways, resembles Sumire. However, Sumire does not have her grace: the girl would like to become a writer, and we are aware that Miu had been an excellent musician. We also know that a traumatic event changed her life and, as a consequence to this, she stopped playing. But in the end, we discover that she never had any real talent.
The problem with Miu is that she is incapable of love.
It is this lack of feeling, this frigidity which prevents her from having any real relationships with others (whether psychological or physical) and therefore of being an artist.
The novel contains a love triangle: the teacher is in love with Sumire, Sumire loves Miu and Miu… loves no one.
We may think that Miu is unable to have a sexual relationship with Sumire because she isn’t attracted to women, but then we realize that she is incapable of loving anyone. Sumire’s disappearance could have reversed her state of apathy, instead this second trauma makes Miu worse and she remains locked in her existential emptiness.
At first, Sumire lacks any feeling and doubts her writing ability. In the end, she “kills the dog”: passing an emotional test.
The novel is a journey of sentimental education. Outwardly, love is the most simple thing, but what would seem to be within our reach proves to be far and elusive. Murakami shows us that things on this ground are far from simple.
As for the end of the book, something very unexpected happened. I gave the book to a girlfriend of mine to read and while discussing it with her, I realized that we had “read” two completely different endings. So, I then asked the opinion of a friend who had also read the book. His ending is similar to mine, although not identical. To settle the matter, I gave the book to another person because I was really curious to find out their interpretation of it. The result: two to two.
But let’s go through it bit by bit. Sumire disappears on a Greek island. Her friend, the young teacher, is deeply in love with her, even though he has never told her this and goes there to try and find her, but his efforts are in vain. So, he returns to Japan and gets on with his life. Months pass and he reverts back to his sad everyday life. This is my first friend’s version of it.
“She never comes back, it’s obvious. She calls him, they are cut off, he stays close to the phone, but she never calls back. She’s never gonna call back.”
Here, instead, is my second boyfriend’s version: “In the end, after endless months of waiting, Sumire calls him from a phone booth and tells him that she’s back after having been far away, that some incredible things have happened to her and that she has managed to overcome them all and would like to see him and talk it over with him. She talks to him as though they only saw each other the day before. It’s the part that moved me the most, which I cherish as a reminder… of love…”
And here is my third girlfriend’s interpretation: “She never returned, but it is all in his mind, like a dream. If one cannot live within the reality, then he lives in his longing, his dream for her. Did the telephone ring, or not? Did he imagine the phone call, or was it real? And did he actually go to Greece?”
This doubt prevails over the entire novel and propels the narrator into a dreamlike dimension. However, their two versions match because both believe that Sumire never returns.
I wonder if Muraki is aware that those who read the novel have such different interpretations of it. Very different. That it is a sort of projective test. Another funny thing is that each person sees their own version as being the real and genuine one. I thought so too, until I found out that there were also other interpretations: this is also a result of the projective test. My friend told me that he has no doubt whatsoever that the girl returns. But then again, neither do I. So, besides the pessimistic version which sees her never returning, we could say that one of the lovers lives on.
Moreover, the original title of Sputnik Sweetheart is Supūtoniku no koibito and could be translated as “The Sputnik’s Lover”.
Without realizing it, I was the one who envisioned the happiest ending. I saw a fairytale ending. I thought she was ready to love him and that maybe she had loved him before leaving (as in Bresson’s Pickpocket). I know that this is not written anywhere and that it is my own take on it. I know that the novel is open to interpretation. But one thing is certain: it all concludes with the return of the protagonist and this gives meaning to everything that happens.
One last consideration: as far as teenagers are concerned (that inescapable existential confinement from which you can get away from, or remain trapped forever) love is only real love if it is unattainable. Adolescents love with such force as to be projective. It is as strong as it is idealized. Therefore, the distinguishing quality of this love is in not ever seeing each other. In a paradox in which those who experience it are totally unaware of it, love is only possible if it is unattainable. It surfaces only when one encounters the other; when you eliminate that colossal distance filled with desire and are part of the real world. I believe that this is what happens to Sumire.