Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Murakami and Laika, part one

Every time I write about Haruki Murakami's novels, I find myself moving past a simple evaluation or recommendation (That part is easy: they're deeply rewarding and you should read them.) to consider instead just what Murakami is trying to say, what his larger intentions might be. His meanings are never quite clear; he surrounds them with an organic strangeness, an obscurantism that seems not so much willful--let alone ill-intentioned--as inherent and essential.

To open Sputnik Sweetheart (1999), however, Murakami employs a tool that writers have long used as a way to draw readers' attention to their underlying themes and intentions: an epigraph. Taken from The Complete Chronicle of World History, it reads:
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, from the Baikanor Space Center in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Sputnik was 58 centimeters in diameter, weighed 83.6 kilograms, and orbited the earth in 96 minutes and 12 seconds.

On November 3 of the same year, Sputnik II was successfully launched, with the dog Laika on board. Laika became the first living being to leave the earth's atmosphere, but the satellite was never recovered, and Laika ended up sacrificed for the sake of biological research in space.

Seemingly ever since the launch, people have found Laika's story powerfully moving, and artists and writers have drawn on it in various forms. (Jeanette Winterson recently turned Laika into a central component of her retelling of the myth of Atlas, Weight.) Why, in the face of the many indisputably worse acts perpetrated by humans in recent decades, does this one story resonate so strongly? In large part, unquestionably, it's simply because Laika was a dog, and many people are irrationally sensitive to the welfare of dogs in a way that they are not about other animals, including humans. But I think it's also--maybe even primarily--because the horrific circumstances make it unusually easy for us to put ourselves in Laika's place and imagine what she felt: from everything you can tell, you're doing what you should do, behaving how you're supposed to behave, when suddenly everything you've known is gone and you've been utterly abandoned. It's an image of deep loss and despair, mixed with a cruel, incomprehensible fate--and that's the pall that Murakami's epigraph casts over Sputnik Sweetheart.

Opening the book in that mood, I was reminded of Murakami's Norwegian Wood, which shares that air of inevitable loss. And sure enough, from the elegaic first paragraph on, Sputnik Sweetheart reads like a stranger, more sinister cousin of Norwegian Wood. They tell stories that are similar in their rough outline, of doomed love affairs, but while Norwegian Wood is narrated by a middle-aged man looking back on his college years, Sputnik Sweetheart is related by a twenty-four-year-old who has only recently experienced--and not by any means yet come to grips with--the events he describes. Both men love a young woman who cannot, for various reasons, return that love; the men turn instead to other women who are attractive, interesting, and sympathetic but who will never be able to displace the unavailable lover. In both novels, the desired women remove themselves to remote locations while the men are left alone, biding their time, yearning. Murakami's treatment of that yearning is deeply poignant in both books, though it takes noticeably different forms in the prose of the two novels--more wistful in the case of Norwegian Wood's older narrator, affectless to the point of naivete in the case of Sputnik Sweetheart, a reminder that Murakami's straightforward style, despite its seeming transparency, is the product of skill and care.

For half of its length, Sputnik Sweetheart also seems to share the commitment to realism that makes Norwegian Wood stand out among Murakami's novels. None of his trademark fantastical strangeness, or, really, even his quirkiness, is to be found--until suddenly the narrator receives a late-night phone call from the Greek island where the young woman, Sumire, has been staying, and the uncanny breaks into his reality.

This is getting very long, so I'll save the rest for tomorrow.

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