Appropriately enough for the novel that followed the tales-within-tales of Murakami's grandly ambitious The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the uncanny enters Sputnik Sweetheart through a story, told by a woman with whom Sumire has fallen in love. It's a stunningly creepy account of a late-night experience at a carnival that turned her hair white and, she says, essentially broke her--and her life--irrevocably into two pieces. From there, the strangeness builds, and the Greek island begins to resemble a de Chirico painting, shadowy and depopulated, but with hints of threatening life around every corner; following more than a hundred pages of straightforward realism, the eruption of the fantastic--and chilling--is all the more believable and compelling. From the start we knew that the novel would end with loss, and the strange events surrounding that loss, never clearly explained, serve both to deepen its impact and make it seem sadly inevitable.
My friend Kristi calls Murakami a pessimist, while I've argued before on this blog that he strikes me as at worst a grudging optimist. After I read Norwegian Wood, I wrote that Murakami's vision, without denying life's traumas, seems to honor the simple effort of daily living:
Norwegian Wood is crowded with suicides, nearly all by teenagers. . . . . Some of the kids have fairly clear reasons, while others are essentially inexplicable, but the overall sense is that, faced with the quotidian difficulties of life, they decided they were unable to continue. In the face of so much death, there is a real sense of hard-won victory, of tangible achievement in the simple fact that the narrator is still alive twenty years later, able to vividly recall and tell us this story of his youth. His life has included great loss, disappointment, and sorrow, but he has kept going.We don't know for sure that the narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart will make that choice, but the book closes on a note of quiet determination.
Which brings me back to Laika. What is Murakami trying to say by linking his story to that one? Is Kristi right about Murakami's pessimism? That doesn't seem so far-fetched: after all, Laika's story is one of sheer hopelessness--there was never a way out for her, just as it seems that there was no way Murakami's narrator in could have kept his love.
I recently told a friend that an essential part of writing a blog like this is a willingness to make decisions about works of art and seem reasonably confident about them--despite knowing that somewhere down the road I might change my mind, or be convinced that I was wrong. In interpreting Laika's story I will admit to being less confident than usual; Murakami's stories are richly multivalent, and I fear that I may be seeing what I want to see. As I continue reading my way through Murakami's oeuvre, I realize that I may reach a different position.
But for now I prefer to read the story as support for my view of Murakami the grudging optimist. We are all like Laika to some extent, set in motion by forces we don't know and can't understand, heading to a destination we can't even conceive clearly. Of course, most of us are much luckier than Laika, our fates nowhere near as horrid--but at the same time, like her we are constantly watching people and things we love and cherish fall away beneath us, loss perhaps the only constant in our long lives.
Yet our space capsule keeps moving, ultimately out of our control, and we have to keep moving with it--so we might as well look out the window and continue thinking about what we see. Faced with the inevitability of loss, we must find a way to give that loss meaning while simultaneously attempting to retain what we can't afford to lose, our very self. So we tell stories, and we pass them on, and meanwhile we pay attention to the things of the world--the art, yes, but also the ephemera and the junk, the very stuff that hedges us about and helps, whether we like it or not, to define who we are.
We can't possibly come through life whole, but if we shore up enough of that everyday stuff, after a terrible loss we just might be able use it as a sort of mold, a place in which to re-form the shattered self. The first step, Murakami seems to remind us again and again, is simply to keep taking the first step.