22 October 2015

[Review SPUTNIK SWEETHEART] Traveling Companion

Title: Sputnik Sweetheart
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publisher: Vintage
Edition: 2002
Pages: 113 (e-book edition)
ISBN: 978-009-944-847-1
My rating: 4/5

What if you're a 22-year-old girl, and at such age, you're falling in love for the first time? Wait, it maybe sounds pretty normal, but what if the person you fall in love with is 17 years older than you and is married? Yeah, nothing is impossible. And, I should add that the person you fall in love is a woman. Voila!

It happenned to Sumire, who found herself falling in love with Miu. I want to begin with who Sumire was. Well, she was a kind of girl you maybe never wanted to be. She dropped out from college, because for her, it was a waste of time to ever have been in a "totally out of touch, a lukewarm, dispirited place" called college, with "hopelessly dull, second-rate specimens" called "fellow students" (p. 6). After that, she has nothing to do despite writing, since she always wanted to be a writer, but until that time, her writing carrier was deadlocked.
"Maybe I'm lacking something. Something you absolutely must have to be a novelist." (Sumire, p. 12)

A conversation about Jack Kerouac's novels and Sputnik with Miu, at a wedding reception, amended to an absorbing private conversation, and brought them close. Then, Miu offered a job to Sumire, to work in her own private business. Sumire finally took that offer, and it changed her almost-monotonous life. Say, like the Europe trip she had with Miu. Everything was going right, until one day Sumire went missing when they're in a small Greek island, near the Turkish border.

"Sumire has disappeared. Like smoke." (Miu, p. 53)

In her confusion, from Greek island, Miu phoned the narrator "I" and asked him to come all the way to that place to help her find Sumire. But, at such a small island, they still couldn't find her. What had happenned to her actually?


Why "Sputnik"?

This is the second book of Murakami's that I read. Yeah, there are still plenty of his books stacked in my tablet, that I haven't read yet. Though, I have been able to grasp his writing style. He wrote word by word intelligibly, ah, thank to Philip Gabriel, who had translated this novel perfectly. (It is not that I am good at Japanese, but I just believe that an easy-understandable translation, which can deliver the original writer's message well, is a perfect translation.) Furthermore, Murakami tended to put a certain deep meaning inside his story. As one of the masters of surrealism and magical-realism genre, actually one of my favorites, his writing engulfed me to his-very-real-story, and then it threw me up to the surreal world.

Besides, Murakami often put songs and belleslettres, some facts, news, and other references, in his story. These elements always improve my knowledge. Sometimes, they become the center of gravity of the story, just like "Sputnik" in Sputnik Sweetheart. Sputnik, which was formerly I've known as the world's first man-made satellite, in Murakami's hands, it became more, more than that!

On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, from the Baikanor Space Centre in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Sputnik was 58 cm in diameter, weighed 83.6 kilograms, and orbited the Earth in 96 minutes and 12 seconds.
On 3 November of the same year, Sputnik II was successfully launched, with the dog Laika on board. Laika became the first living being to leave the Earth's atmosphere, but the satellite was never recovered, and Laika ended up sacrificed for the sake of biological research in space.

(p. 5)
Traveling companion (Pinterest)
Actually, and I have known that when reading this novel, in Russian, sputnik means "travelling companion", just like who Sumire was for Miu.

"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." (Miu, p. 65, after Sumire has disappeared)

And it's kind of a strange coincidence, since long before Miu knew the meaning behind "Sputnik", Sumire had had "Sputnik Sweetheart" as private name for Miu.

Ever since that day, Sumire's private name for Miu was Sputnik Sweetheart. She loved the sound of it. It made her think of Laika, the dog. The man-made satellite streaking soundlessly across the blackness of outer space. The dark, lustrous eyes of the dog gazing out of the tiny window. In the infinite loneliness of space, what could Laika possibly be looking at? (p. 8)

Another new stuff that is new to me was the term of  "Beatnik writers", thank to Miu, who mistook the word "Beatnik" as "Sputnik" at the first conversation she had with Sumire. Beatnik is a literary movement arose in America, in 1950s. The Beatnik writers "fashioned a literature that was more bold, straightforward, and expressive than anything that had come before" (The Beat Generation).

As I said before, Murakami loved to use songs and belleslettres to enrich his story. In this novel, he mentioned Jack Kerouac's novel, entitled On the Road, and Sumire's favorite quote from it,

"No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength." (p. 7)

And you know what? Jack Kerouac, together with Allen Ginsberg, formed the core of Beatnik's initial group. More surprising, according to Smashinglists.com, On the Road is the no. 1 out of "Top 10 Beatnik Novels"!

Murakami also mentioned another author, i.e. Paul Nizan. The narrator "I" of this novel claimed that Paul Nizan's novel marked the first meeting between Sumire and him. Furthermore, Murakami put one of Groucho Marx's quote on page 38 (Groucho Marx was an American comedian and film and television star),

"She's so in love with me she doesn't know anything. That's why she's in love with me."
Apart from that, Murakami wrote many interesting and meaningful yet casually-presented dialogues, between his characters. For examples, the dialogues between the narrator and Sumire about the difference between a sign and a symbol (p. 18-20); which was triggered by Miu's strange question to Sumire:
"All right--can you explain, in 200 words or less, the difference between a sign and a symbol?" (Miu, p. 15)

Impressive Characters

This story was narrated by a man, using first person point of view. So, I will start this section by elaborating his characters.

The Narrator

What if you're a man who falls in love with your friend, but she is falling in love with someone else, who is a woman? What will you do?

"What's important is being attentive. Staying calm, being alert to things around you. [...] The part about being alert. Not predjuging things, listening to what's going on, keeping your ears, heart, and mind open." (p. 24, 25)

  • He loved books so much. This was the first thing that both Sumire and him loved to do. "Devouring books came as naturally to us as breathing." (p. 11) And, in his opinion, "Novels should be for pure personal enjoyment, I decided, not part of your work or study." (p. 33) Whoa, I am on the opposite side to him!
  • He was a teacher, and apparently a good teacher, since he was very good in composing analogies to explain something hard to be understood into more understandable one. For example, the analogy between "writing novels and how Chinese built their city gates" (p. 12). I found a number of unique and artistic metaphors in Sputnik Sweetheart, and since this whole story was narrated by him, those metaphors were made by him.

  1. "It sruck me, at the time, as something straight out of the opening of Soseki's novel Sansiro." (p. 24)
  2. "What I could understand was that it was dark all around and close to Fitzgerald's 'Dark Night of the Soul'." (p. 17)
  3. "Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus 'Mack the Knife'. That's what my life would be like without you." (p. 37)
  4. When he described Sumire's handwriting: "Hieroglyphic writing, compact, hard, uncompromising. Writing that reminded me of the beetles they discovered inside the pyramids of Egypt. Like it's going to start crawling and disappear back into the darkness of history." (p. 40)
  • He was a practical and realistic man, as could be seen by his comment to Sumire's imagination in page 7. Sumire said, "Every day you stand on top of a mountain, make a 360 degrees sweep, checking to see if there are any fires. And that's it. You're done for the day. The rest of the time you can read, write, whatever you want. At night scruffy bears hang around your cabin. That's the life! Compared to that, studying literature in college is like biting down on the bitter end of a cucumber." (Well, another unique metaphor.) And, he commented realistically, "Okay, but someday you'll have to come down off that mountain."
  • He was falling in love with Sumire, but buried his feeling, for the sake of their close friendship and Sumire's feeling towards Miu. He slept with many women, with his head full of Sumire. All of those women were older than him, and either married or had fiances or had steady boyfriends. "My most recent partner was the mother of one of my pupils. We slept together about twice a month." (p. 34)
  • A kind of an observer person, who maintained a set distance to other people, even with his parents and sister, he hardly ever had a heart-to-heart conversation.
  • He maintained a organized life, as described by Sumire: "[he was] living an early-to-bed-early-to-rise farmer's lifestyle." (p. 41).


"And what sort of experience can a writer have if she doesn't feel passion? It'd be like a chef without an appetite." (Sumire, p. 12)

  • In Japanese, "sumire" stands for "violet". Her mother gave her that name based on Mozart's song's title. At first, Sumire didn't understand the lyrics, but from the graceful motif she felt sure the song was a paean to the beautiful violets blooming in a field. Then, finally she knew that "the lyrics told of a callous sheperd's daughter trampling down a hapless little violet in a field. The girl didn't even notice she'd flattened the flower. It was based on a Goethe poem, and Sumire found nothing redeeming about it, no lesson to be learned." (p. 13)
  • A paradoxical character: she insisted to become a novelist ("no matter how many choices life might bring her way, it was novelist or nothing" - p.6), but conversely, she wasn't sure that she can be a novelist ("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." - p. 10). Concerning her confusion, the narrator told her that the ones she needed were "time and experience", while Miu said, "You've got the talent. I'm sure someday you'll be an extraordinary writer... But now's not the time." (p. 23) Essentially, it was about time.
  • She loved freedom and was brave enough to take the risk to guarantee her freedom. You can see it through her action when decided to drop out of college.
  • A big fan of classical music.
  • She often interpret the narrator's metaphors literally.
  • A heavy smoker (she smoked 2 packs of Marlboro a day). But then she tried to stop smoking since "Miu didn't allow smoking in her office and hated people to smoke in front of her." (p. 28).


"What happened after I met Miu was I stopped thinking." (Sumire, p. 73)

  • Loved classical music, and has similar tastes with Sumire's.
  • My paradigm was enlightened by Miu's opinion about why she left half-remained wine behind (p. 27).
Sumire: It's such a waste to order a whole bottle of wine for just the two of us. We can barely finish half.
Miu: Don't worry. The more we leave behind, the more people in the restaurant will be able to try it. The sommelier, the headwaiter, all the way down to the waiter who fills the water glasses. That way a lot of people will start to acquire a taste for good wine. Which is why leaving expensive wine is never a waste.

  •  Fourteen years ago, Miu's hair turned white. This nearly-magical happening was related to "The Tale of Miu and the Ferris Wheel" (as written by Sumire, which was later found by the narrator after Sumire was gone). Whoa, finally the surreal element of Murakami's story has appeared!
"I was still on this side, here. But another me, maybe half of me, had gone over to the other side. Taking with it my black hair, my sexual desire, my periods, my ovulation, perhaps even the will to live." (Miu, p. 85)
"I understood--that something was missing from me." (Miu, p. 86)

Milestones of the Day When Sumire Disappeared

The Man-eating Cats and Other Stories About Cats

At the small Greek island, Sumire once read a newspaper article to Miu, about a 70-year-old lady who was eaten by her cats. Actually, this part then appeared a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
"One day the woman collapsed face down on her sofa from a heart attack and expired. It wasn't known how much time had elapsed between her attack and her death. At any rate, the woman's soul passed through all the set stages to bid farewell to its old companion, the body it had inhabited for 70 years. She didn't have any relatives or friends who visited her regularly, and her body wasn't discovered until a week later. The doors were shut, the windows shuttered, and the cats couldn't get out after the death of their owner. There wasn't any food in the apartment. There must have been something in the refrigerator, but cats don't possess the necessary skill to open fridge doors. Starving, they devoured the flesh of their owner." (p. 57)
After that, Miu told Sumire an interesting paradoxical story about cat too, which she got from her teacher at Catholic girls' school (where she had been a student in the past). "The nun, despite of morality and religiousity which she happenned to have, she said like this:"

"You're washed up on a deserted island with a cat. This is a solitary island in the middle of nowhere. It's almost impossible that someone would rescue you within ten days. When your food and water run out, you may very well die. Well, what would you do? Since the cat is suffering as you are, shoud you divide your meagre food with it? I want you to understand that dividing your food with the cat would be wrong. The reason being that you are precious beings, chosen by God, and the cat is not. That's why you should eat all the food yourself." (p. 58)
Furthermore, Sumire continued her story about her cat which she got when she when she was at second grade of school. The cat was interested by something Sumire couldn't see, and it turned crazy around the large pine tree in the garden. The cat finally climbed the tree to the peak, and never went down since.
"It just disappeared. Like smoke." (Sumire, p. 59)
All those three stories are real, but nearly-magical. The first and third ones grasped my attention so hard. Even more, Sumire's quote when she told Miu about her former cat, is then quoted by Miu when Sumire disappeared.

Document 1 and Document 2

After Sumire has disappeared, while searching through something suspicious or cautious things around Sumire's room at the villa in Greek island, the narrator found two documents, written by Sumire, stored in a floopy disk. Those two documents were have no titles, they were just named Document 1 and Document 2. The significant thing he found in Document 1 was Sumire's dream about her mother. While, in Document 2 he read the terrible tale of Miu and the ferris wheel. And then, he found that the common thread of these two stories are 2 different worlds; this side, the other side (p.89). These drove the narrator to the hypothesis that Sumire went over to the other side (p. 89). Entering the world of dreams, and never coming out. Living there for the rest of time.

The Miu's surreal tale was really terrible for me, terrible enough to make me get goosebumps. As always, Murakami's surreal stories left me musing about what they mean.


Murakami did talk about lesbianism through the tale of Sumire and Miu. Once, he made us discussed whether lesbianism is genetic or not, through Sumire's quote.
"It said that lesbians are born that way; there's a tiny bone in the inner ear that's completely different from other women's and that makes all the difference. Some small bone with a complicated name. So being a lesbian isn't acquired; it's genetic." (Sumire - p. 30, as she quoted an article about an American doctor's invention)
I appreciated that in spite of her strange feeling towards Miu, Sumire was confident enough to tell the narrator about it; about the way she became a lesbian. This novel was packed with mystery, which made me read page by page gluttonously. While reading this, I found many intriguing things.

Oh, one more, the part when Miu asked Sumire to wear beautiful clothes, which she got from her rich friend's leftover clothes (they were happened to be matched with Sumire's size), put in my mind of a short story from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, entitled Tony Takitani. It told that Tony Takitani's wife "kept on buying new clothes almost every day". So, when his wife got killed by an accident, he was left with a room full of size 7 dresses and 112 pairs of shoes. He had no idea what to do with them, so he put an advertisement in the newspaper to offer all of the clothes to a woman, for free.

Well, Sputnik Sweetheart is a worth-read novel, with engaging plot, impressive characters, and intriguing elements.


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