n October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, into space. It orbited the earth for three months before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up. Widely regarded in the West as a military threat, Sputnik I simply sent a static-laden signal back to earth, each beep heralding the dawn of the space race that would dictate East-West relations for two decades.
Half a lifetime later, Haruki Murakami brings us Sputnik Sweetheart, a wise, sad and loving look at how we are each satellites in sometimes decaying orbit around one another. Three characters dominate the book: the unnamed male author, a grade-school teacher in modern day Japan; Sumire, the object of his unrequited affection, a free-spirited post-beatnik he has known since his college days; and Miu, a glamorous and successful businesswoman who has rather unexpectedly captured Sumire’s heart. “Sumire sighed, gazed up at the ceiling for a while, and lit her cigarette. It’s pretty strange if you think about it, she thought. Here I am in love for the first time in my life, at age twenty-two. And the other person just happens to be a woman.” When Miu invites her new protÅ½gÅ½ to accompany her on a whirlwind business trip to Europe, Sumire happily agrees. On an unnamed Greek Island off the coast of Turkey (Lesbos?), however, things go horribly awry. The teacher awakens to a frantic phone call from Miu summoning him to Greece in search of Sumire, who has gone missing in the wake of a cataclysmic evening. The teacher establishes a tenuous yet intimate bond with Miu as they ransack the beach cottage for clues. Bit by excruciating bit, pieces of Sumire’s last days float to the surface as the police and her loved ones try to make sense of her disappearance. In Sputnik Sweetheart, his seventh novel translated into English, Murakami again displays the minimalist craftsmanship that has made him a critic’s darling both in Asia and the West. Perhaps better than any contemporary writer, he captures and lays bare the raw human emotion of longing.
An interesting factoid picked up in the reading: the ominous Sputnik, which held the world in paranoid thrall for months, was about the size of a beach ball.
Bruce Tierney is a Nashville-based writer.