Lonely Metal Souls

Theo Tait

Haruki Murakami’s translator, Philip Gabriel, describes him as a ‘one-man revolution in Japanese fictional style’. His early novels and short stories of the 1980s – playful, wry, experimental, saturated in references to Western culture – made him the spiritual cheerleader of a new generation of writers. They rejected the prevailing naturalism of ‘pure literature’ (junbungaku), escaped from its circumscribed frame of reference, and used syntax closer to translated forms than to the nuanced, elliptical style of traditional literary language. A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) spells out its revolutionary credentials in the very first chapter. The hero – whose style of narration and worldview are clearly based on Philip Marlowe, and who is about to embark on a labyrinthine quest for a sheep with supernatural powers – remembers an afternoon spent with a lover during his student days. While munching hot dogs, they noticed that Yukio Mishima’s picture kept flashing up on the lounge TV. ‘The volume control was broken so we could hardly make out what was being said, but it didn’t matter to us one way or the other.’ Unimpressed, they disappear for another bout of casual, ‘unremarkable’ sex. As the chronology makes clear, the media event they had not quite witnessed was the death of Japan’s outstanding postwar novelist, who had disembowelled himself in public. In Murakami’s fictional world, this last gasp of the emperor-obsessed samurai spirit registers as an Andy Warhol moment – depthless, barely penetrating the rock and roll soundtrack.

Partly because of this cool, iconoclastic attitude, Murakami’s books are wildly popular with younger Japanese readers – Norwegian Wood (1987), a realistic coming-of-age story set in Tokyo at the end of the 1960s and usually dubbed Japan’s Catcher in the Rye, has sold millions. Perhaps it is inevitable that they have also attracted a certain amount of tutting from the highbrows. Murakami has been accused of writing novels that simply aren’t Japanese; of providing slick, modish, disposable entertainment; of using sex to sell books; of tailoring his goods for foreign audiences; of presenting an exotic, easily marketable version of hi-tech, international Japan; and of being a bit of a joker (bad news in a literary culture not known for its light-heartedness). From the Olympian perspective of Kenzaburo Oe – Japan’s last Nobel literature laureate – Murakami’s fictions are ‘mere reflections of the vast consumer culture of Tokyo and the subcultures of the world at large’. They ‘convey the experience of a youth politically uninvolved or disaffected, content to exist within a late adolescent or post-adolescent subculture’.

Murakami’s more recent work could be interpreted as a bid for respectability. The mood tends to be more sombre and subdued, the stories to be stripped of their pop decoration. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) tackles the Japanese theme of themes: the dark history of the mid-century. Underground (2000),[*] his non-fiction account of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, is an attempt at a state of the nation essay: a study of the ‘Japanese psyche’, after that attack, the Kobe earthquake and economic stagnation. The bid has been successful, gaining Murakami a formidable reputation both at home and abroad. It has also increasingly been recognised that his work doesn’t represent a complete break with tradition. His bleakness, his emphasis on suffering and death, are in line with the prevailing tone of modern Japanese fiction; so is the austere minimalism with which even the most fantastic plot developments are treated. Some of his images of desolation are not unlike Mishima’s; he has a prevailing sense of loss, of hauntedness, in common with Oe. Norwegian Wood could be said to represent an Americanised version of the mainstream autobiographical ‘I novel’ (watakushi shosetsu).

Yet at first glance, Sputnik Sweetheart does appear glib, slight and sophomoric. The narrator is a young man referred to only as K. He keeps his distance, both from other people and from the rat race: he teaches young children, he reads books, he listens to music, he watches football. He insists that he is ‘middle-of-the-road’, ‘average’, ‘run-of-the-mill’ and ‘normal’ to the point where he raises the distinct suspicion that he isn’t. He is a descendant of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, complicit in but peripheral to the central drama of disastrous love. This drama involves his friend Sumire, an aspiring writer and wannabe beatnik; she wears Dizzy Gillespie glasses, an oversized herring-bone coat and heavy work boots: ‘If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.’ She chain-smokes and frequently calls K. in the middle of the night. He doesn’t seem to mind: he’s in love with her. Sumire, however, has never experienced love or desire – until she meets Miu, a cultured and elegant married woman, 17 years older than her. Sumire falls for her on the spot: ‘an intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains’. When they first meet, Sumire tells Miu about her obsession with Jack Kerouac. Miu says: ‘Kerouac . . . hmm . . . Wasn’t he a Sputnik?’ From then on, Sumire refers to Miu as her ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’.

This is typical of the novel’s humour – gentle, possibly charming, certainly whimsical – which readers of Murakami’s previous books will recognise; flights of fancy about animals and characters with amazing facial features are a speciality: in A Wild Sheep Chase, the narrator’s girlfriend has fantastic ears which improve sex a thousand times over; in Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire’s father has such a beautiful nose that all women fall in love with him. Readers will also recognise the dynamic established between K. and Sumire – the mildly alienated narrator, the strange and unattainable young woman – and the emphasis in the story on music, recorded and performed. And they won’t be surprised by the more outlandish developments that follow. Women (and cats) disappear, as strange, unattainable women tend to do in Murakami’s fiction. There are alternative realities and encounters with doubles. Like a manga cartoonist returning time and again to the same types and symbols, Murakami has been reworking a handful of characters and literary devices for the last twenty years. On the face of it, they don’t seem particularly exciting. K.’s voice has much in common with what sometimes seems like the international style of contemporary literary fiction: reliably unreliable, executed in an affectless deadpan. Imagine Meursault, but with the button-pushing acuity of a copywriter or pornographer, and a fetishistic interest in consumer goods:

Over a navy-blue polo shirt Miu had on a cotton sweater of the same colour, and she wore a thin, plain silver hairpin. Her trousers were white slim-fit jeans. On a corner of the table rested a pair of bright blue sunglasses, and on the chair next to her was a squash racquet and a Missoni sports bag.

But this tone isn’t sustained either, clashing with the humour and the kooky pop metaphors, some of which are effective, some of which – to deal with them in kind – suck. Gabriel, whose translations are usually excellent, struggles, and hits some unmistakably bum notes.

Meanwhile, the plot chugs on. Miu, who runs a wine importing business, employs Sumire as her assistant. They travel round Europe together on business, and become close friends (‘Do you know what sputnik means in Russian? “Travelling companion”’). But it looks extremely unlikely that Miu will return Sumire’s love. K. is having an affair with the married mother of a pupil, while remaining fixated on Sumire. The metaphor of the satellite presides rather neatly over this melancholy love quadrangle: these people are fellow travellers at best, never really connecting: ‘Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again.’

All of which makes it odd that Sputnik Sweetheart, like most of Murakami’s writing, is very good. The best explanation for this is his masterful control of plotting, pace and eerie incident: a subtle and low-key kind of horror writing. In the middle of the night, K. receives a phone call from the Greek island where the two women are staying. Miu tells him that something has happened to Sumire. It’d be unfair to offer more than a sketch of what follows, but developments owe something to Antonioni’s film L’Avventura, and something to Murakami’s own back catalogue. People disappear. We learn how Miu’s black hair turned white overnight – a deeply shocking story involving a Swiss Ferris wheel and a doppelganger. At night, mysterious music is heard calling K. from ‘the other side’. Then, towards the end of the book, K.’s lover’s son, a strange boy, is caught in an apparently pointless act of shop-lifting. These discrete incidents, with some obvious connections and some less obvious ones, resonate and rebound off each other, making an enigmatic compound parable.

Another explanation could be offered at a thematic level. Murakami’s perennial subject is normal life invaded by the incomprehensible. But he’s interested in the everyday part, as well as the abnormality that follows. You could look at much of Murakami’s literary output as an attempt to explore some very simple, quotidian facts. People do disappear from other people’s lives – accidents, time, mental illness, suicide, terrorist attacks and city crowds take them away. That this is a truism makes it no less mysterious – something enacted by his various approaches to the subject, which range from stark acknowledgment to dreamlike, quasi-mythical elaboration. He has dramatised it in realistic fiction and in fantasy; he has reported it in documentary form. One of the Aum cult members interviewed in Underground says: ‘My consciousness had gone over to the other side and I couldn’t get back’ – a scary, pre-emptive echo of this novel.

As anyone who has ploughed through all 34 eyewitness accounts of the sarin gas attack will know, Murakami is prepared to risk boring the reader to carry out his design, which, as in Sputnik Sweetheart, is to put sensational events firmly in the context of normal life. And, as anyone who’s read the outstanding South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992) will know, he can easily write in a more compressed, uniform, credible way. The first third of this novel, retrospectively, looks like a blind: a deliberate burst of banality before the uncanny is unleashed. Though the result isn’t as attractive or stylish as some of its predecessors, the strategy is still startlingly effective. Design that seemed vague suddenly seems deceptively smart. Passages that looked like aimless doodling take on very definite meaning. Where the humour was goofy in the earlier part of the book, it later becomes razor sharp. At the centre of Sputnik Sweetheart are some very old questions, voiced by K.: ‘Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in the world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why?’ The book rescues these questions from the realm of platitude.

The atmosphere of naivety surrounding Sputnik Sweetheart is fishy: underneath, everything is extremely precise and sophisticated. Appropriately, at the centre of it all is the idea of the doppelganger, that fundamental figure of uncertainty, dispossession and division. Even the imagery seems to come divided. Working against slick, shipshape conceits such as the satellite, there are rogue images that don’t map very obviously onto the action. Take the Chinese Gates that K. describes: the bones of dead soldiers would be sealed up inside the gates to guard the city; then dogs would be sacrificed and their blood shed to animate the guardian spirits. This liminal symbol keeps recurring, suggesting a set of arcane correspondences – intimations about violence and crossing over to the ‘other side’ – which remain just beyond the reader’s reach. The metaphors, anodyne in the first section, become so disturbing later on as to be almost unreadable – at one point K. imagines cats eating his brain. ‘Only a handful of writers – I’m talking the most talented – are able to pull off the kind of irrational synthesis you find in dreams,’ Sumire remarks. Despite the slightly grating tone of Sputnik Sweetheart, it’s hard to resist the implied conclusion.

Reviewed in the LRB by Ian Hacking (19 October).

[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Ian Hacking (19 October).