Oh, Winter sets in. The days, not just the evenings, are bitterly cold. For hours my fingertips have been icy – more than one woman has complained of my cold hands, a “symptom of my gentle heart” – and even though the radiator is on behind my sofa I still need a thick sweater to keep off the chill.
It is 21:04 on a Monday, and I am cold inside.
Beside me is a glass of Château L’Estran Médoc – that’s a red. Red wine is supposed to be served at room temperature, but even though it’s been far from the fridge for the best part of a week, the glass is still cool to the touch. I feel obliged to warm it up in my palm like a snifter of brandy.
Trust me to pick a Murakami book that features neither whiskey nor jazz.
Sputnik Sweetheart was one of the first Murakami novels I read. My edition is from 2002, in the bold translation by Philip Gabriel. It is rough around the edges – the book, not the novel, which is as crisp as a new banknote – its pages faded to sepia, bolstering the vivid black-and-whiteness of its cover. The erotic cover photo was taken by Nobuyoshi Araki, a prolific and borderline-pornographic artist from Tokyo. He photographed Bjӧrk. He shot Lady Gaga contorted in ropes. Sputnik Sweetheart is Haruki Murakami’s most sexually-charged novel.
The brief is “find the jazz in the book and listen, find the whiskey in the book and imbibe, read the words and splash a few of my own down.”
But in the 229 pages of sensuality and strangeness that is Sputnik Sweetheart, I find no mention of whiskey. There is, astonishingly for Murakami, not a single jazz number mentioned. Perhaps it is because it is a woman-driven narrative, and these are dreary man things, things that men can linger on and forget to. Sputnik is instead filled with classical and wine:
According to her father, her mother had chosen the name Sumire. She loved the Mozart song of the same name and had decided long before that if she had a daughter that would be her name.
Sumire is, arguably, the protagonist of the book. Young and creative, unable to string her thoughts into the coherent novel she hopes to write, this 22-year-old dreamer’s name means “violet”. Like the flower, she is a fragile, vulnerable, and – as the nameless male narrator who loves her points out – exquisite.
And the exquisite Sumire thinks she is strange for never feeling any romantic or sexual desire until she meets Miu, a woman 17 years her senior. Miu is married and has a cultured lifestyle funded by, it seems, the sourcing and trading of fine wine that she sells to her Japanese clientele.
No wonder there’s little whiskey but lots of vino in the book.
Sumire’s unconventional love story is told by “K”, who has loved her for a long time. He is a teacher (Couldn’t I have been!) whose dead-end affairs with married women seem to be a substitute for his unrequited affection and throbbing desire for sweet Sumire, who appears largely oblivious. She calls up K from a payphone in the middle of the night, waking him up, and he doesn’t object. He wants to hear her voice. He’s that pathetic – or that in love.
So that’s the theme, I thought when I re-read it. Something crunched a little within me.
So there’s no jazz this time, either – I picked a belter for my second entry in this series, didn’t I? – but there’s a touch of bossa nova and a sprinkle of swing:
- I folded my hands behind my head and watched Sumire as she slowly yet eagerly devoured her cake. From the small speakers on the ceiling of the coffee shop Astrud Gilberto sang an old bossa nova song. “Take me to Aruanda,” she sang. I closed my eyes, and the clatter of the cups and saucers sounded like the roar of a far-off sea. Aruanda – what’s it like there? I wondered. (p.33-34)
- “If I were a good-for-nothing lesbian [says Sumire to K, confused by her feelings for Miu] would you still be my friend?”
“Whether you’re a good-for nothing lesbian or not doesn’t matter [K replies]. Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus ‘Mack the Knife’. That’s what my life would be like without you.”
“I’m not sure I follow your metaphor, but what you mean is you’d feel really lonely?”
“That’s about the size of it,” I said.
Swing would spoil the mood, I think. If Sputnik were a piece of music, it’s much more likely to be the springy Latin jive of Astrud’s bossa nova. This is the music I listen to as I unscrew the wine, wait for a glass to warm and breathe, and drink.
You’re supposed to describe the bouquet of a wine, aren’t you? Is that what I’m expected to do? I wanted whiskey. I’m not much of a wine drinker. The last person who made me drink wine lives half a country away and isn’t someone I particularly want to speak to again. She was the sort of person who is impressed by a wine connoisseur, who finds learned commentary on which-goes-with-what an admirable trait.
Good luck to her, I think, not enamored with my judgemental side.
I would describe the bouquet of the wine as “red”.
Happily, part of the novel is about writing. It’s not especially enlightening, though. We won’t get much insight into Murakami’s (near) masterful prose construction. But Sputnik is a fine example of tight writing: there is very little flab, and the bits that you think are flab turn out to be relevant later on, and their conspicuous irrelevance glows with hidden meaning. Those pieces aren’t irrelevant, you realise. You just haven’t understood their relevance yet.
Sumire clings onto her dream of being a novelist into her twenties (around the same time that I was wrapping up a BA in English and Writing, still hopeful myself). It’s only her mother’s financial support that allows her to continue to dream:
Sumire might very well have been thrown out – penniless, without the necessary social skills – into the wilderness of a somewhat humourless reality. The Earth, after all, doesn’t creak and groan its way around the sun just so human beings can have a good time and a bit of a laugh. (p.12)
How true, Mister Murakami. It’s something that I’ve had to remind myself of lately, wishing I’d forsaken a creative education for something more practical. The further away from that decision I get, the more I realise my true life and the alternate reality of success have diverged. In one’s twenties a creative personality is interesting, alluring even. In one’s thirties its lifestyle smacks of man-childishness, of miserable loserhood.
But wait, there’s more on writing! Sumire blames her writer’s block on having recently stopped smoking. Because she can’t smoke, she can’t write. But she admits that it’s an excuse:
“What really upsets me is I don’t have confidence any more in the act of writing itself. I read the stuff I wrote not long ago, and it’s boring. What could I have been thinking? It’s like looking across the room at some filthy socks tossed on the floor. I feel awful, realising all the time and energy I wasted.” (p.54)
“Sometimes I get so frightened, like everything I’ve done up till now is wrong … The world’s crawling with stupid, innocent girls, and I’m just one of them, self-consciously chasing after dreams that’ll never come true. I should shut the piano lid and come down off the stage. Before it’s too late.” (p.55)
How I know that feeling. I came close to giving up writing in 2013. After the girl now across the country, after the trip across the world that led nowhere, after something near rock-bottom, I decided that my work was shit and the future I dreamed of was hopeless. One or two very nice people encouraged me to keep going. I gave myself a fun little project to see if I could reignite my passion, and the result was The Gun of Our Maker, a Western, written almost entirely for me. It’s perhaps the favourite thing of mine that I’ve ever written, maybe even the best. But it’s a Western, so obviously it didn’t find a publisher. I’m happy with that.
Go back before the nowhere trip, before the office job that nearly shattered me, before the first thing I ever had published (Half Discovered Wings, Libros International, 2009), back to university when I didn’t need to think about the future. And there I met people who were the same as me for the first time in my life, and pretty much for the last time, too. Some of them were a mess, some of them were beautiful, some of them were beautiful messes, and one of them I loved.
I think of what we all wrote and talked about back then, over wine much like this Château L’Estran Médoc I’m working my way through (glass three forthcoming), and I remember times that were both the best and the worst. Far from the Dickensian sense, these were times that defined me and that I’ve moved so far away from that I can barely remember, and yet I’m still tied to them. I could almost recount more stories from those three years than I can in most of the 15 years I’ve lived since. I have journals full of them, most of which scream with pain. Like K and Sumire, the one I loved didn’t love me back, and maybe that’s why I love Sputnik Sweetheart.
It’s 22:04. The wine is heavy and dusty. The Médoc that Miu and Sumire drink together (p.51), long before Sumire’s ill-advised but inevitable attempt at seduction, is almost as old as I am, but Tesco doesn’t stock a 31-year-old Médoc, so I was obliged to settle for the oldest and most expensive Médoc that they did have, which was from 2010. Seven years. Where was I seven years ago? 2010, soon after the conclusion of my Master’s degree, in almost-doomed Writing. I’d found a job on the fifth floor of a Sheffield city centre building beside the City Hall, and when I looked out through the boss’ window during a private meeting I thought that I was moving up, that things were coming together.
How are the wine and music co-mingling? I’m not sure. Astrud on YouTube has a long autoplay life: she’s been going for an hour and bounces from mellow lounge jazz to acid jazz to full-blown Brazilian Firestarter. She’s become background music, a blur of sweet accented vocals and wind instruments, and the wine has made my tongue numb and fingers heavy.
I’m re-reading a scene in which Sumire calls K at about 3 in the morning. He wakes, he talks to her, they discuss things that are both meaningful and utterly meaningless.
I drew the curtain aside, and there was the moon floating in the sky like some pale, clever orphan. I knew that I wouldn’t get back to sleep […] I sat, reading, waiting for the dawn.
When I was at university my love would call me, and I’d be ecstatic to wake to the jolt of the phone. This would be between semesters, between years, in the long weeks between seeing her. Back then going home to my mother’s felt alien, temporary. It would, a few years later, become my home again. But at that time I’d wake to my love’s call and wonder where I was, and I’d look out of the open window, as we talked shit for two hours, across the fields and trees, hearing the distant swish of traffic, and have silly night-dreams.
Also during university was when I would get drunk. It wasn’t that often, and still isn’t. Those nights at clubs weren’t especially fun for me. I don’t dance. I’m the kid who stood at the edge of the room at school discos. When I dance, people laugh at how awkward I am and I’m obliged to acknowledge it and laugh with them. Drunk then, like drunk now, is having a slow body but a quick mind trapped inside, along with quick music on the outside that makes my body feel even slower.
Sluggish, I pour a touch more Médoc. It’s not an unpleasant feeling after a long few weeks. Up or down, back or forth, I don’t know where I’m going. I feel like a knot in the middle of a tangle of elastic bands stretched wide: things jingle me here, jangle me there, and I have the impression of being moved, and yet I’m still where I was, a knot in the middle going nowhere.
In the book, K gets letters from Sumire. She’s been on travels with Miu. K has no idea if they’re involved. It’s not clear if he’s jealous. When he slices open the envelope to remove her letter, I’m reminded of the letters my love would send me between Years One and Two, in reply to the ones I’d send her. Handwritten, a dumb anachronism even in 2003, more so now. I miss the tactile nature of them, the whorl of someone’s idiosyncratic handwriting. I write my journals by hand now. She features sometimes. Not often.
My lips are numb. Because my glass is small, I’m barely down to half a bottle. Work tomorrow. Mustn’t overdo it. Just allow the melding of music and tipple and wordplay.
Reading Sumire’s letters through K’s eyes, I feel how he goes about his small life before and after opening those envelopes. He loves her, but he is apart from her, and he just moves about his empty apartment, goes about his business: cooks a meal, goes out for a few hours, comes home. Meanwhile he thinks about what she’s written, tries to read between the lines.
On page 92, Miu calls K from Greece. She and Sumire have been staying at a sunny villa there, but something has happened. Miu can’t go into details; it’s too strange. The call has come in the middle of the night. Miu asks K to come, to the villa on the Greek island. He does; he goes right there.
One time, my love texted me in the middle of the night and I knew that she was upset. I didn’t know what the problem was. She was like me: up and down. Hair trigger, sometimes. Thinking too deeply, feeling to acutely. I got up in the middle of the night and went to her. Her dorms were miles away from mine, and I was a student so I couldn’t afford a taxi. I walked, completely misjudging the distance. For a long time. She tried to dissuade me, saying without saying that she had already pushed other people away that night. She didn’t want to do that with me, too. I went anyway. I arrived and found someone else there. Another concerned lover. She went into the kitchen and made us both tea. It took a long time. I didn’t say a word to the other lover. It made me cold from the inside out. It had brought me outside of myself, made me realise that there were real things beyond my fantasies. I don’t recall whether I finished the tea. I wrote a few bad poems about the experience.
Is this the power of Murakami’s writing: to poignantly make us feel something like unrequited love without ever using the phrase “unrequited love”? Or else to so deftly conjure an adolescent feeling from long ago that it’s just a story now?
Poor K. He goes to help Sumire, and arrives at the island to find that she’s disappeared. Rejected by Miu, she just up and disappeared in her pyjamas. No-one knows to where. Now they have both lost her, and possibly she has lost herself. The impression is that she has gone to some other place, somewhere she can exist apart from herself and the hurtful things that life has brought to her. She is a fragile violet, a proverbial “shrinking violet”. Injured by the things that most of us suffer in life, she steps away somehow. Her disappearance is an unsolved mystery.
So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us – that’s snatched right out of our hands – even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness. (p.225)
Well, damn. Even Astrid is dampening the fast beat of her melodies against the slow shutting-down brought about by the wine:
Now he’s gone away
And I’m alone
With a memory of his last look
Vague and drawn and sad
I see it still
All the heartbreak in his last look
But the mixture hasn’t brought about a sadness, despite the drawn-out melancholy of the literature. I wanted to experiment with the combination, to see how the sound and sips of Murakami’s fictional reality accentuate, or in some way endorse, his written word. This time there is a disconnect. The wine is weighty and affecting, but probably because I’ve hardly eaten today. My mood before the wine has drawn the wine into it; the wine has created nothing. The music draws me out. Maybe if I’d sampled the classical music that peppers the book – Mozart, Brahms – I would have felt something more powerful than distant, blanched feelings of a nigh-immemorial heartbreak, inspired by what I found in the pages of the book.
Next time I’ll plumb a longer text, maybe – Kafka on the Shore beckons, my first Murakami, my window into his surreality. But I know that I’m drawn to somewhere else, somewhere south of the border, west of the sun.