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Book Review: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Last summer I was determined to start reading again. It had been so long since I’d dedicated time and mind to the simple leisure of literary escapism. The first book I picked up during this endeavour was Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s work had been suggested to me before, and I knew it to be highly acclaimed. If you ask me today what I learned that summer from reading the novel, I fear I will not be able to answer you. To be able to explain, articulately, extensively, and entirely what a great mystery the piece was, yet the immeasurably profound way in which it impacted me is quite a difficult (and I might fear, impossible) task.

Sputnik Sweetheart is a captivating and enigmatic novel that delves into themes of love, loss, identity, and the elusive nature of human connections. As with many of Murakami's works, this novel offers a surreal and dreamlike narrative, blurring the lines between reality and imagination, leaving readers entranced and contemplative long after turning the final page. The story follows the perspective of an unnamed male protagonist, a schoolteacher who becomes enamored with his friend, Sumire. Sumire is a struggling writer with a penchant for telling quirky stories, often depicting characters with fantastical lives and experiences. Despite their deep connection and shared interests, she feels an inexplicable void.

I felt in tandem with Sumire, the protagonist of the story, the second I encountered her. The very initial yet resonating introduction from the narrator of a tornado-sweeping love for a young twenty-two-year-old woman who was so erratic, caught up in her head- shivering hands and whispered paranoia-fuelled calls from a local phonebooth at three in the morning. From the get-go, I felt as though I knew her.

Sumire’s biggest woe is failing the altogether laborious sentiment of ‘loving yourself’. When there is no love to chase, she submerges herself in her writing. Nothing gives her the thrill, her skies are perpetually grey. Although superficially accessible to her one friend, she does not really ever open up: because there is nothing to uncover, no one understands her. She goes through life feeling fragmented, as if someone snuck into her room during the darkest hours of the night, undid her completely (anatomy and all) and put her back together all wrong.

The plot takes an intriguing turn when Sumire falls in love with an older woman, Miu, a successful businesswoman. It delves into the intricacies of desire, longing, and unrequited love, exploring the painful yearning for something beyond one's reach. Murakami's writing style is hauntingly beautiful throughout, filled with poetic and evocative descriptions that immerse readers in the characters' emotional worlds.

The narrative moves between the present and the past, often employing dream sequences and fantastical elements, blurring reality and illusion. The author's skillful use of symbolism and metaphor adds depth to the story, leaving ample room for interpretation and reflection. The presence of the satellite also hints at the novel's underlying theme of existential exploration. Just like the satellite orbiting in space, the characters in Sputnik Sweetheart are in constant motion, searching for their true selves and trying to make sense of the vastness of existence.

“The earth, after all, doesn’t creak and groan its way around the sun just so human beings can have a good time and a bit of a laugh”, writes Murakami, and to undoubtedly integrate this fact into the minds of his readers, he creates a loner so self-aware to the point where it is exhausting, depreciating, and isolating of herself. He pairs this character with someone even more mysterious and illusive, which makes the read enduringly sadder.

It is hard to reiterate what is really happening in Sputnik Sweetheart, underneath the surface plot of it all. It is a first where I’ve come across a book that’s more about feeling than knowing. People disappear as if swallowed whole by the earth itself, only to reappear towards the very end with no particular explanations or conclusions. People see themselves, but not in a mirror. Cats vanish from a tree into the moonlight. “If you have questions” Murakami taunts “live with them.” The resounding moral of it all seems to be that no matter the heartbreak, the grievance, the grief: life goes on and time heals all. That the world is desolate and empty and it is beautiful to have loved and lost because hauntingly enough, nothing lasts forever.

But even the pain, the insufferable quench to prove that notion wrong, to panickily make sense out of the trickery of the universe, is something we learn to stop pining over and observe only from a distance. Something we learn to give up trying to understand, and in the words of the writer, “…learn to accept things that are hard to comprehend, and leave them that way. And bleed.”

Sputnik Sweetheart is a philosophical exploration of the human condition, where Murakami weaves together themes of longing, identity, and the search for belonging. The novel contemplates the transient nature of life and the elusive quest for a meaningful connection with others. As the characters embark on their journeys, readers are drawn into a thought-provoking contemplation of love's complexities and the intangible nature of desire.

Beyond its exploration of love and longing, Sputnik Sweetheart also delves into the theme of identity and the struggle to find one's true self. Sumire's journey toward self-discovery mirrors the universal human quest for authenticity and fulfillment. Her desire to be a writer, to express herself through her stories, becomes a metaphor for the longing to find a sense of purpose and belonging in a world that often feels disjointed and elusive.

While the novel's dreamlike quality and open-ended conclusion may leave some readers yearning for more concrete answers, it is precisely this sense of ambiguity that adds to its allure. Murakami's ability to explore the human psyche and emotions with a delicate touch sets this novel apart and makes it a memorable and emotionally resonant read.

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