Book Review 23: Language like 20 year old Balsamic Vinegar

"Don't you just love it?" she said. "Everyday you stand on top of a mountain, make a three-hundred-sixty degree sweep, checking to see if there're 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 life! Compared with that, studying literature in college is like chomping down on the bitter end of a cucumber."

"Ok," I said, "but someday you'll have to come down off the mountain." As usual, my practical, humdrum opinions didn't faze her.

Page 5
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami is a great book.

Long time readers of Cromely's World may already know I am a big fan of Murakami (Dance, Dance, Dance and The Elephant Vanishes).

I enjoy reading his work because of the language.

With many authors, you read a book for the plot -- to get somewhere. It's like swimming the length of a pool. The goal is to get to the wall at the other end.

A Murakami book is like a giant hot tub. You climb into it just to be in it. You relish the ebb and flow of the warm, comforting water, water and seek out the occasional water jet.

The book itself is the experience.

Sputnik Sweetheart has many things in common with other Murakami books.

  • There's the language, of course.
  • The narrator is a man looking back at events that happened in the past.
  • The events in the book happened around the narrator; he did little to influence them.
  • There are powerful women.
  • And there is a strong mystical element to the novel.

Miu gazed steadily at Sumire, still holding her hand. Sumire could make out clearly her own figure reflected deep inside Miu's dark eyes. It looked to her like her own soul being sucked into the other side of a mirror. Sumire loved that vision, and, at the same time it frightened her.

Page 38

There is also a lot of talking. Much of the novel involves characters talking about present or past events over coffee, dinner, late night phone calls, and more. They even talk extensively about other talks they had.

But in the end, we talked all night. Every story has a time to be told, I convinced her. Otherwise, you'll forever be a prisoner to the secret inside you.

Page 143
In Sputnik Sweetheart, the unnamed narrator loves Sumire, but can't have her. College age Sumire loves the much older Miu, but can't quite have her. And Miu has her own issues.

Sumire was a hopeless romantic, set in her ways -- a bit innocent, to put a nice spin on it. Start her talking, and she'd go on nonstop, but if she was with someone she didn't get along with -- most people in the world, in other words -- she barely opened her mouth. She smoked too much and you could count on her to lose her ticket every time she rode the train. She'd get so engrossed in her thoughts at times that she'd forget to eat, and she was as thin as one of those war orphans in an old Italian movie -- like a stick with eyes.

Page 4
When Sumire disappears in the Greek Islands, Miu contacts the narrator for help. Then the secrets start to come out.

The back cover describes the book as a mystery or detective story, but it's really not. If you are looking for a good PI whodunit, keep right on looking because you won't find it here. There is a mystery, but there isn't an investigation like you might expect from a mystery novel.

The language is rich, as I've said. I'm not sure how much of that if Murakami, and how much of that is his translator. Regardless, they make a great team.

Murakami plays with the language in fascinating ways. From simple one-liners like:

Sumire frowned and sighed, "If they invent a car that runs on stupid jokes, you could go far."

Page 43

To oddly reversed similes:

There're no rooster crowing in my new place, Kichijoji, instead a lot of crows making a racket like some old wailing women.

Page 70
The story in this book is a bit of a departure for Murakami, though. Most of the time his characters are actually in Europe instead of Asia.

The story is also one of his more straight-forward tales. I had no trouble following it from beginning to end. I don't entirely understand what happened on the last page, but other than that I have no problems with book.

If you enjoy the experience of reading, or are a Murakami fan, this is a great book to have on your to-read list. It's a beautifully written text, with fascinating characters.

But oddly, there no Noboru Watanabes in this one.

You can find more of my Book Reviews here.

Here are some of my other favorite passages from Sputnik Sweetheart.

When did my youth slip away from me? I suddenly thought. It was over, wasn't it? Seemed just like yesterday I was till only half grown up. Huey Lewis and the News had a couple of hit songs then. Not so many years ago. And now, here I was, inside a closed circuit, spinning my wheels. Knowing I wasn't getting anywhere, but spinning just the same. I had to. Had to keep that up or I wouldn't survive.

Page 78

"Okay, consider this. Say you're going to go on a long trip with someone by car. And the two of you will take turns driving. Which type of person would you choose? One who's a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who's not a good driver?"

"Probably the second one," I said.

"Me too," she replied. "What we have here is very similar. Good or bad, nimble or clumsy -- those aren't important. What's important is being attentive. Staying calm, being alert to things around you."

Page 40

No matter where I find myself, this is the time of day I love the best. The time that's mine alone. It'll be dawn soon, and I'm sitting here writing. Like Buddha, born from his mother's side (the right or the left, I can't recall), the new sun will lumber up and peek over the edge of the hills. And the ever discreet Miu will quietly wake up. At six, we'll make a simple breakfast together, and afterward go over the hills to our ever lovely beach. Before this routine begins, I want to roll up my sleeves and finish a bit of work.

Page 131

"After my dog died I stayed in my room a lot, just reading books. The world inside books seemed so much more alive to me than anything outside. I could see things I'd never seen before. Books and music were my best friends. I had a couple of good friends at school, but never met anyone I could really speak my heart to. We'd just make small talk, play soccer together. When something bothered me, I didn't talk with anyone about it. I thought it over all by myself, came to a conclusion, and took action alone. Not that I really felt lonely. I thought that's just the way things are. Human beings, in the final analysis, have to survive on their own."

Page 195

So that's how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the things 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. We draw every nearer to the end of our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deed of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immense emptiness.

Page 206-207


Anonymous said...

I have read 4-5 books from Murakami, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the end of the wolrd, Kafka on the shore, Dance Dance, what else .. Norwegian Wood ...

There is not one his book I did not enjoy ... They are not easy reads, but they are great

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge Murakami fan but there're two books of his that I wasn't so enamoured with. One was South of the Border, West of the Sun, and the other was Sputnik Sweetheart. I thought these were his weakest books or it may just be the Philip Gabriel translations. He's my least favourite out of the three Murakami translators.

Cromely said...

bizgiftguru -- That's great. I really love Murakami's work, though at times I find the open endedness frustrating. But the journey makes it all worth while.

Lis -- That's interesting to hear. I haven't paid much attention to who the translators are, though I probably should, since so much of the magic in these books is in the language.

I read South of the Border and wasn't blown away by it. I think it was my first Murakami book so I should probably try again. What's interesting, though, is that South of the Border and Sputnik Sweetheart, along with Norwegian Wood, are some of his most straight forward books. They are the most grounded in reality (though Sputnik Sweetheart does have its own spirit world elements).

The various Sheepman books and Wind Up Bird are more challenging for me because there is so much weird or alien stuff in there. I think I may be too linear to get the full experience from them. I'm too caught up in trying to know exactly what is happening.

Anonymous said...

Wind-up Bird was exhausting to read (for me). My favourite Murakami is Hard-boiled Wonderland.