Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

 

Having heard a lot about the genius of Murakami over the years I was excepting something a bit more out of After Dark, a novel which, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Murakami aficionados, failed to captivate me. Credit where credit’s due, Murakami certainly knows how to create and maintain a certain ambience. Set in Tokyo, this slight novel takes place over the course of a single night, rotating between four characters: we have Mari Asai, who is Not Like Other Girls™, who is spending her night reading at Denny’s, a restaurant chain, Takahashi Tetsuya, trombone player who is as dull as a brick and prone to spouting sexist comments (A girl is reading? A girl knows what a trombone is? MADNESS!), Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister who seems trapped in a realm between dreams and reality, and Shirakawa, a man who beats up a Chinese prostitute in a love hotel nearby Mari.
Takahashi recognises Mari and approaches her, the two talk about fake-deep things. Takahashi goes on to play at some club or whatnot and Mari, who is studying Chinese, ends up helping the Chinese prostitute beaten by Shirakawa. Eri meanwhile is sleeping, but her sleep is disturbed by an ominous presence.
Murakami seems under the belief that women are obsessed by their own breasts (if you think you are dreaming wouldn’t you pinch yourself? Slap yourself? Apparently, if you are a woman, you would likely grab your breasts). I disliked the way Murakami portrayed Mari and Eri is opposites of each other. Mari is intelligent and overlooked, Eri is beautiful and beloved by everyone (yet her beauty is also, alas, a curse). Characters chat about Jazz, Mari complains about her sister, Takahashi says dull things, Shirakawa is emotionless, and the clock ticks away.
The novel ends with an incestuous scenes that exist only because Mari and Eri are girls.
This novel was surprisingly forgettable and having now read some articles and Reddit posts about the way Murakami portrays women…well, I am unsure whether I hate myself enough to read more of sexist stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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