Book of the Week: Sputnik Sweetheart

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  July 2, 2002 at 11:27 AM
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SAN DIEGO, July 2 (UPI) -- Haruki Murakami is one of Japan's foremost authors, and is widely read in France. However, his name is not yet a household word in the United States. His novels are not easy to read. Although his style is fluid, and the dialogue often quite funny, one still feels the cultural divide.

Notwithstanding the translation into one's own familiar language, the reader still has to enter into a foreign world, peopled by characters whose attitudes and motivations are hard to fathom.

In "Sputnik Sweetheart," (now available in a Vintage paperback edition, $12.00, 210 pages) Murakami takes us on a journey of discovery. The discovery of self, and of others, it is also a tale of love, desire and longing. He addresses, in his inimitable subtle way, the themes of solitude and the inability to communicate one's feelings.

"K," a young college student, falls in love with Sumire, who falls in love with Miu, an older woman. So far, so good. Murakami is adept at creating atmosphere, at descriptions and pithy one-liners. But then, his imagination takes over, and the novel tips into surrealism. And this is where the reader loses his or her grasp of reality.

This is where you follow the characters into parallel worlds, or the world of dreams. This is where strange things happen, like Sumire disappearing in the middle of the night from a small island in Greece, or "K" hearing live music coming from a deserted mountaintop, also in the middle of the night.

This is where strange, bizarre animals lead the hero, if you can call him that, of "A Wild Sheep Chase" (also a Vintage paperback, $14.00, 353 pages) on a wild goose chase. This is the story of an advertising executive sent on a futile search of what exactly? Does he even know? A mutant sheep? His best friend? As we follow the hero from Tokyo to Sapporo and beyond, from city to wild mountains, we attempt to grasp at familiar scenes in an effort to understand the world of Murakami.

His characters listen to jazz (Murakami is a great jazz fan). They eat pasta and drink coffee. They wear jeans and T-shirts, go to school or to work, just like us.

And then just when you're beginning to settle into the story comfortably, and feel that you are beginning to understand the protagonists and their world, the novel switches to a Luis Bunuel quality, and you are suddenly out of your depth.

Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, but grew up in Kobe, where he discovered Western literature. His novels are inspired by Raymond Chandler, and Raymond Carver, whose novels he translates.

His first novel won the Gunzou prize, and together with the second and third ones form the trilogy of the Rat. This trilogy is a perfect example of Murakami's surreal world, and hilarious dialogue.

"The Boss gave me it a few years ago," said the chauffeur out of nowhere.

"Gave you what?"

"God's telephone number."

"He told just you, alone, in secret?"

"Yes. Just me, in secret. He's a fine gentleman. Would you care to get to know Him?"

"If possible," I said.

"Well, then, it's Tokyo 9-4-5- ..."

"Just a second," I said, pulling out my notebook and pen.

"But do you really think it's all right, telling me like this?"

"Sure, it's all right. I don't go telling just anyone. And you seem like a good person."

"Well, thank you, " I said. "But what should I talk to God about? I'm not Christian or anything."

"No problem there. All you have to do is to speak honestly about whatever concerns you or troubles you. No matter how trivial you might think it is. God never gets bored and never laughs at you."

"Thanks. I'll give him a call."

"That's the spirit," said the chauffeur.

But underneath all the fun and games, there is an undercurrent of genuine emotion, of vague anguish, in Murakami's novels. It is what a French article has described as "mono no aware," an ancient Japanese term denoting poignant melancholy. The kind of feeling evoked by watching falling leaves, or the receding figure of a departing friend.

It is the kind of feeling one gets from reading "The Tales of Gengi," the famous 11th-century saga describing life at the Imperial court.

Imagine that superimposed on a thriller in the Carver or Chandler style and you start to get the picture. Or not, as the case may be.

Murakami also conveys an aura of refined sensuality. Unlike our Western ideas of eroticism, which tend to concentrate on parts of a woman's private anatomy, Murakami's hero is obsessed by a woman's ears.

"They were the dream image of an ear. The quintessence, the paragon of ears. Never had any enlarged part of the human body (genitals included, of course) held such strong attraction for me. They were like some whirlpool of fate sucking me in.

"One astonishingly bold curve cut clear across the picture plane, others curled into delicate filigrees of subtle shadow, while still others traced, like an ancient mural, the legends of a past age. But the supple flesh of the earlobe surpassed them all, transcending all beauty and desire."

At such times, Murakami manages to share with his readers the longing his characters experience. The quality of human emotions transcends the cultural differences.

Murakami is the author of several novels, a collection of stories, and the non-fiction "Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche." His work has been widely translated.

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