Murakami, Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart.

NY: Knopf, 2001.

Every time I pick up a Murakami novel, I know I’m about to enter a new world inhabited by new people. They’re always Japanese, but they don’t really have to be. This author’s characters could exist anywhere, with only a few cultural details being different.

This one is about “K,” a self-admitted nerd, and lonely all his life. He’s therefore defensive of his personal boundaries, but he’s also hopelessly in love with Sumire, a driven young woman a couple years younger, who is convinced she’s destined to become a great novelist, and who quit college so she could spend all her time writing. Of course, we quickly learn that he’s far more intellectual and self-aware than she is, but he values their interminable conversations (she’s always calling him in the middle of the night with questions he tries hard to answer) because they “helped me open up more about myself to her — and, at the same time, to myself.” He often ends up rewording his explanations as metaphors, so she can understand the point he’s trying to make. (“Most people live in a fiction. Think of it in terms of a car’s transmission, that stands between you and the harsh realities of life.”)

Unfortunately, though she regards him as her closest friend, Sumire has absolutely no romantic, much less sexual, interest in “K” — or anyone else . . . until one day she suddenly falls for a sophisticated businesswoman seventeen years her senior, with a mysterious past. She goes to work for Miu — as a subsidized companion, more than anything — and accompanies her on a combination business trip and vacation to Europe. And then “K,” languishing back in Tokyo, gets a call from Miu on a small island in the Aegean. Sumire has disappeared in the middle of the night. Can he come at once to Greece and help figure out what happened?

“K,” the narrator (and also the narratee, he points out, when he tries to talk about himself) is actually a much more interesting character than the rather shallow and not very bright Sumire. He became an elementary school teacher almost by default because he didn’t think he could write well enough to become a novelist and he couldn’t stand the prospect of trying to climb the corporate ladder. Can he become a detective as well? So he goes to Greece, where he discovers things about Miu, which Sumire had only recently learned, as well. Has she gone to the Other Side, in pursuit of the “other” Miu, the one from fourteen years before?

The plot and how the characters move around in it may seem too abstract for some, but that’s Murakami, who is sometimes compared to Kafka (whose deliberate obscurity I can’t stand, frankly). And his explicit philosophizing this time is mostly confined to the last couple of chapters, as “K” stares into a future without Sumire, although there’s a hint that their story hasn’t ended yet.

There are two separate and equally good reasons to read Murakami. One is the plot and the characters, both of which are guaranteed to be highly original and thoroughly interesting, if sometimes a little mystical. The other is simply the wonderful way he uses the language, which will always get your attention. His style is especially unusual, since his prose must be filtered through the translator (in whose skills he has very fortunate). Lines like, “Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus ‘Mack the Knife’. That’s what my life would be like without you.” Or an airline passenger’s comment after a fitful nap in the terminal: “I felt gray and listless, as if I’d swallowed an overcast sky whole.” Or, looking down over the blue island harbor from a hillside: “It was an impressive sight, something I wanted to clip out with scissors and pin to the wall of my memory.” Or Sumire, on her own unsure attempts to write down her thoughts: “The boomerang that returns is not the same one I threw.” Lovely stuff. Oh, and the story about the ferris wheel is spooky as hell.

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