home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

sputnik sweetheart

13 june 2012

Sputnik Sweetheart belongs to a narrow genre of fiction, the rift-into-another-reality story. Well, the device of opening a rift into another reality is hardly rare. Sometimes it seems that every other summer movie or children's book depends on it. The narrower genre that I have in mind treats the other reality as something enigmatic, unexplorable, tinged with regret and mystery. Instead of charging into the other reality with firearms blazing and sorting out the fabric of the universe, our hero is left with a permanent impression of loss and regret, just beyond the ambit of his consciousness. The classics of the genre, for me, are Alain-Fournier's delicate novel Le Grand Meaulnes and H.G. Wells's great short story "The Door in the Wall." And one lovely recent exemplar is this short novel by Haruki Murakami.

Awhile ago, a friend posted on Facebook a query asking for novels where the narrator is (at least ostensibly) a prominent character, but not the protagonist. The Great Gatsby is the archetype, and among other notable examples is Crónica de una muerte anunciada. Sputnik Sweetheart also qualifies, or at least initially seems to. (All such novels may be far more about their narrators than they initially seem to be.) It is the story of Sumire, a young woman who wants to be a novelist. Things keep getting in the way of Sumire's writing, but she meets Miu, an extremely enigmatic older woman who hires her as a secretary and travels to Europe with her.

One expects Miu to have some predatory sexual interest in Sumire, but it's almost the other way around. Miu is aloof, truly icy; Sumire is desperately in love with her. The narrator pieces together the two women's relationship from late-night phone calls from Sumire: he in turn is desperately in love with her, but she treats him as a best pal, not at all a love interest. (And a married woman is in love with the narrator; all love in Sputnik Sweetheart is intransitive.) And then, the narrator pieces together the rest of the story from what he hears from Miu, and from two strange pieces of writing that Sumire leaves for him. The two women have gone on holiday to a Greek island, and Sumire has vanished completely. Miu spins the tale for the narrator, and then disappears pretty completely herself.

Intransitive, I said, and I might have also said "oblique" or "asymmetrical." Boy loses girl, for sure, but everybody in the story loses something, and not all the losses are commensurate. Sumire disappears, but not into some sort of tesseract or parallel dimension; she disappears into her very otherness. The narrator, again and again, stresses the notion of being unknowable to others. Instead of taking the romantic course that insists on knowability, and persevers through love, he stops cold at the borders of himself.

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, with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. (206)
As I wrote recently with reference to The English Patient, such paragraphs gain their impact from context. Abstracted from the novel, those sentences look defeatist and doctrinaire. But when added to a subtle, unsensational narrative, full of odd non-sequiturs and chipper matters-of-factness, the narrator's conclusion about loneliness gains great power. We may finally conclude that he's gotten out of life what he's put into it. But the characters who leave him, silently, do so in eminently convincing ways. They "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on," as Auden put it, leaving him behind unnoticed, crashed to earth, suffering. What's the point of making a scene about it?

Murakami Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart. [Supuutoniku no koibito, 1999.] Translated by Philip Gabriel. 2001. New York: Vintage [Random House], 2002.