Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

Title: Sputnik Sweetheart
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Romance/Mystery
My Rating: ★★★★

Final Sputnik

Boy loves girl…but girl loves another girl.

Sounds like the typical set-up for another tawdry lesbian love story? Perhaps, but if you let Haruki Murakami expand that little formula in his own surreal way, you might be surprised of the product presented here in Sputnik Sweetheart.

I’m no stranger to Murakami’s worlds, especially those that totter on the border of reality and fantasy. I’ve seen his talking cats, teens attempting to run away from oedipal prophecies, girls in bizarre pseudo-Sleeping Beauty states, prostitutes that only service you through the mind, and hungry couples holding up a McDonald’s just for the heck of it. His only “normal” book is Norwegian Wood, commonly considered as some kind of The Catcher in the Rye in Japan. If I were to place a category for Sputnik Sweetheart, I’d say it was right in the middle of Norwegian Wood and his other works, particularly The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

It takes time for many people to like the regular Murakami treat. Norwegian Wood became a hit because almost everyone—everyone who has experienced falling in love, that is—can relate to it. It’s almost the same with this book.

Sputnik Sweetheart is full of unrequited loves, of “almosts,” and of roads not taken. Our narrator, the ever-pensive yet oddly humorous K, is a 25-year-old teacher who becomes smitten with a college classmate, Sumire. Being utterly determined in becoming a successful writer, Sumire shuns any other personal commitments until she crossed paths with Miu, a Korean businesswoman seventeen years her senior. Murakami juggles these three points adroitly during the first three quarters of the book, and ever-so-slowly he morphs the romance into a hardboiled detective story. Sumire vanishes from an island off the coast of Greece and K is solicited to join the search party. In the foreign soil, K finds himself faced with lots of epiphanies that may change his life forever.

Romance may be the hub of this book, but the spokes are equally strong and thought-provoking. Loneliness and longing are laced in every page, and what’s amazing here is that Murakami can still make you laugh even at the darkest moments. I can’t help but to love K, what with his concealed feelings and his self-deprecatory personality. He is both the source of serious philosophical lessons and the comic relief in the book! And he is likeable, to boot. He doesn’t sulk so much, but no matter how he tries to strain his emotions, the readers can easily see through him, like you can see through the silent denials of an old friend.

The issues of socializing, sexual desire, and loss are the other recurring themes. My favorite would be the topic of human longing, and how there’s always a line that divides us no matter how hard we try to get closer to someone. The title refers to the Russian man-made satellite Sputnik I, but Murakami also emphasizes the etymology of the word “sputnik”: a travel companion. Sometimes, the length of journey two people made together doesn’t matter if in the end they will realize they are just lumps of empty metal circling a common planet.

As usual, Murakami wows me with his prose. From the raw human emotions to the little details of a nondescript scenario, he never fails to get to the senses of the readers. I think I will never get tired of him as a writer.

Over all, it’s a great read; it can make you think and make you laugh, and perhaps also make you cry. Like most of Murakami’s books, Sputnik Sweetheart is open-ended, with the last lines hinting of a more hopeful future.

So yes, four stars.

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