“I have this strange feeling that I’m not myself anymore. It’s hard to put into words, but I guess it’s like I was fast asleep, and someone came, disassembled me, and hurriedly put me back together again. That sort of feeling.”
This is not the first time that I have raved about Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, nor will it be the last. Every year, this great man is linked with the Nobel Prize for Literature and every year his legions of worldwide fans are left disappointed. But, as any of them will tell you, it is simply only a matter of time before he gets the recognition that he deserves.
What is it about Murakami’s writing that inspires such devotion? This is my fifth Murakami read and I am starting to formulate some ideas without really being able to put them into words.
At the very heart of his work, there is a beautiful simplicity. His work is just so easy to relate to. He often deals with self-identity as a theme. His characters always seem to be trying to make sense of the world or just trying to fit in and get by. He even dealt with this in his beautifully simple and personal ode to exercise What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Every reader can relate to this theme as none of us have all the answers when it comes to life and we all desperately want to find our way in the world. In a sense this is one of the main reasons why people read books in the first place.
Sputnik Sweetheart isn’t one of Murakami’s better known novels. Reading through many reviews online, it is fair to say that it is also not one of his most loved. People generally seem to find it hard to connect with because so much of it is left open at the end. There are a couple of interesting fan theories on goodreads about what actually happens at the end.
To be honest, I only came by a copy of this book when it appeared at a second hand book sale at work. There are many other Murakami novels that I would have liked to read first but, like all good books, this one seemed to find me. Not vice versa. Yesterday I started reading this in bed first thing in the morning and I simply had to finish it before the end of day. I can only describe it as a masterpiece.
The storyline is simple. Twenty-year-old Sumire falls in love with a woman seventeen years her senior. Sumire’s best friend K is hopelessly in love with her. When something strange happens to Sumire, K must drop everything to try find out what happens to his friend.
As a reader, writer, teacher and as someone going through a bit of an identity crisis (aren’t we all?) this book struck a chord with me. For me, so much of the plot was about badly wanting something that is just out of reach. There are many situations like this in life when we overreach and run the risk of losing our true self in the process. After the fact, we often walk away from life’s events wondering how things could have turned out differently.
Murakami alludes to the fact that these desires can be reduced to a single moment where our lives split into two very different directions. It is only natural then to question what things would be like if we chose the other path. In this book, Murakami even goes as far to suggest that we can live parallel lives. This idea is not new. Think of the many classic parallel universe examples that have come up in popular culture already; The Man in the High Castle, Back To The Future movies, etc.
By the end of this book, I was struck with a great sense of melancholy. How could I not think of those many parallel lives that I could be living? Am I currently living out the happy ending? Is there an alternate Book Chief out there doing much better? This in a nutshell is the human condition. You either decide to lament that which has passed you by or you realise that there are further opportunities ahead. This makes us very different from every other species on the planet.
I’ll leave you with my favourite passage from the book. I love how it describes not only how our lives are undeniably built upon the lives and effort of our ancestors, but also how our own pain and experiences is what makes living so real and individual.
“Maybe I’m lacking something. Something you absolutely must have to be a novelist.”
A deep silence ensued. It seemed she was seeking my run-of-the-mill opinion.
After a while I started to speak. “A long time ago in China there were cities with high walls around them, with huge, magnificent gates. The gates weren’t just doors for letting people in or out, they had greater significance. People believed the city’s soul resided in the gates. Or at least that it should reside there. It’s like in Europe in the Middle Ages when people felt a city’s heart lay in its cathedral and central square. Which is why even today in China there are lots of wonderful gates still standing. Do you know how the Chinese built these gates?”
“I have no idea,” Sumire answered.
“People would take carts out to old battlefields and gather the bleached bones that were buried there or lay scattered about. China’s a pretty ancient country—lots of old
battlegrounds—so they never had to search far. At the entrance to the city they’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones up inside. They hoped that by commemorating the dead soldiers in this way they would continue to guard their town. There’s more. When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinkle their blood on the gate. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried-out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive. At least that was the idea.”
Sumire waited in silence for me to go on.
“Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.”
“So what you’re saying is that I go out on my own and find my own dog?”
“And shed fresh blood?”
Sumire bit her lip and thought about this. She tossed another hapless stone into the pond. “I really don’t want to kill an animal if I can help it.”
“It’s a metaphor,” I said. “You don’t have to actually kill anything.”