"Sputnik Sweetheart" (Knopf, 211 pages, $23) is Haruki Murakami's seventh novel translated into English. At home and abroad, many regard him, at 52, as Japan's finest living novelist. Widely traveled and comfortable in the United States and Europe, he is a writer of extraordinary breadth of interest and imagery, blessed with immense energy and capacity for innovation. Among works of his well received in America have been "Norwegian Wood" and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle."
Even enthusiasts, I believe, will find "Sputnik" stands alone without obvious parallel to his other books. It has a force of emotional provocativeness that I find searingly, indelibly memorable.
It's a simple story. The anonymous narrator is a Tokyo primary-school teacher who - like many of Murakami's protagonists - is a practical, rather lonely young man. His one truly close friend is Sumire, which means Violet in Japanese, a 22-year-old aspiring novelist who is devoted to long, intense conversations with him. He is hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with her. She meets the novel's third character, Miu - a woman 17 years older, married and head of an international business.
"Sputnik" refers, of course, to the first and subsequent earth satellites launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. It becomes a metaphor for the isolation of humans, relieved - very rarely - by the intimacy of the occasional intersecting of their paths amid the infinite mystery of all space.
The reader first hears about Sputnik in an early conversation between Sumire and Miu. Sumire has been reading Jack Kerouac. Wasn't Kerouac a "sputnik"? Miu asks - meaning, of course, beatnik.
And thus, Murakami's metaphor - and his title - is born. Sumire finds herself unexpectedly but overwhelmingly falling in love with Miu. Miu becomes her "Sputnik Sweetheart."
Miu offers Sumire a part-time job, which leads to her taking her on a working trip to Europe as her traveling secretary. They end up on a tiny Greek island off Rhodes, where Sumire declares her love. Her sexual advances are refused by Miu - but not for lack of affection - and Sumire then disappears - something that happens to many of the women in Murakami's stories - wearing only light silk pajamas and cheap sandals. Miu telephones the narrator, who flies and ferries to the island to spend a week of fruitless search. Their treasured friend is never found, though both believe she is still alive - in some abstract other plane of existence.
That's it. Simple and straightforward, though with that one bit of what can be taken as mystical. It is an agonizing, sweet story about the power and the pain of love. The book is immensely deepened by perfect little images that leave much to be filled in by the reader's heart or eye - in the manner of Hiroshige's seaside landscapes and other mystery-nourished ukiyoe woodblock prints.
The narrator faces the fact that Sumire has disappeared from his world. Whatever a reader may make of that "other side" to which he believes she has gone, the narrator's yearning love for her will never be fulfilled. In a statement that is close to the core of the essence of the book, he declares: "We each have a special something we can get only at a special time in our life. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it is gone forever. What I'd lost was not just Sumire. I'd lost that precious flame."
Up to the point that Miu telephones the narrator, almost half way through the book, it has been a reflective tale. It has expressed mainly the almost aimless, very private and rather isolated lives of the narrator and Sumire - he teaching without a great sense of purpose and she living alone without a significant job, writing badly.
Suddenly, with the telephone call, the story assumes enormous tension. It is not just the mystery of a disappearance in an obscure and romantic part of the world, but the dramatization and convergence of the quiet, internal private tensions that had permeated the early part of the book - and which sometimes seemed aimlessly drifting - come together as a well-knit, demanding story full of practical searching, concrete action.
And that story returns to the examination of life as yearning-filled isolation. Telling the narrator of the moments after she had turned away Sumire's sexual advances, Miu says: "And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they're nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant, we'd be in absolute solitude. Until we got burned up and became nothing."
Murakami has written of liking "stories of abnormal things happening to normal people." He has said as well that writing stories is "about consciously manipulating the unconscious and creating your own dream." In this book, Sumire writes in her final diary of "entering the world of dreams, and never coming out." This is the simplest way, perhaps the only way, Sumire concludes, to reconcile the known and the unknown.
As Knopf is releasing "Sputnik," Vintage is publishing in trade paperback a translation of Murakami's "Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche," his only nonfiction work. It is a journalistic work of oral history, based on interviews with 65 victims of the March 1995 sarin gassing of the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.