You know how it is. You come to the end of a big reading binge (in my case, almost every novel by Elizabeth Bowen interspersed by a little Patrick White) and you come to a standstill. What to read next?
If you are a rusted-on reader, it is unthinkable not to have one (or more) books on the go.
You have a copy of The Castle by Kafka you borrowed from the library, but it's a bit strange. You could go mad, perhaps, reading this book. It is very dark. You are at page twenty-six. You put it aside.
It's like wanting to eat something and not knowing what. Are you in fact hungry at all? Maybe eating something only seems like a good idea.You look in the cupboards, the fridge, looking for something that may appeal (really, you are searching for chocolate).
And so I searched the bookshelves, opening one book after another, reading bits, putting each book aside. Is this what I want? Is this?
And so to Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami, for what is, I think, my third reading. What a comfort this book is, like draping a cosy shawl round my neck when I feel ill.
An unnamed male narrator is best friends, and in love with Sumire, who is 22, about the same age as himself. But Sumire isn't aware of his feelings and doesn't see him that way. She's not interested in love at all, until she meets Miu, a woman 17 years her senior. She goes to work for Miu, a wine importer, and they do a business trip together, ending up on holiday on a small Greek Island. (There is also a lot in this book about writing, as Sumire wants to be a writer, and does write. She is described as like a character out of a Kerouac novel, with a big heavy old overcoat and heavy boots. Not that this garb features heavily in Kerouac.)
Then the narrator gets a late night call from Miu. Can he come to Greece? Sumire has disappeared.
Being a Murakami novel, Sumire's disappearance isn't the result of a crime. Rather, it is paranormal or psychological or philosophical, or ... you don't really understand it, but with Murakami, you just have to go with him.
He begins with a foundation of absolute normality; we almost hear too much about the quotidian lives of the characters. Not too much for me, though. I love domestic detail, and his central male characters all come from the same mould - the narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart is no exception. They are young men who have some sort of job, live alone and look after themselves fairly fastidiously and with no fuss. They enjoy their lives, working, going out with friends or alone, ironing shirts, doing bits of shopping, cooking 'simple meals' (they are always 'simple meals' - and sometimes Murakami details what: spaghetti or noodles, or fish or toast. They down a beer or two). Romance figures, and sex.
What I like about these men is that they are men who like women and respect them. They seem to relate to women on terms of equality, and apart from being sexually interested in them, treat them as they would a male friend. They are cooking, ironing New Men. They approach the world with a gentle, good-humored openness.
Sometimes they befriend an adolescent girl (such as in Dance, Dance, Dance, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and more disturbingly, in IQ84, where the male protagonist ends up having weird supernatural sex with one such girl, resulting in a pregnancy in the women he loves.
I have this theory that when you read a book you become the book for a while, and so I'm enjoying being Sputnik Sweetheart. Perhaps the reason I couldn't get into The Castle is that I simple couldn't bear being it.
An odd connection
The first of Murakami's books I ever read was Kafka on the Shore. I saw it in Gleebooks in Sydney years ago, read the blurb, some of the inside text, and kept wandering back to it. It sounded strange, but appealing. There was an old man in it who talked to cats. Actually talked to them - and they talked back.
I liked the easy style. And so I bought it, and became hooked on Murakami, who must be one of my favourite contemporary novelists (Banana Yoshimoto is another).
And now I've almost finished Sputnik I'm starting to pick up The Castle again, browsing through the introduction: ...
"In The Castle K lives in a space where magical connection is taken for granted. The strong erotic charge in the novel [ ... ]
..." the central theme of familiar and strange, reason and fantasy, caution and ambition, doubt and certainty ..."
"To understand beyond understanding we too must be in a mood of acceptance. Our reason is bounded by perceptions which cover part of reality, not the whole."
To understand beyond understanding.
This is part of the appeal of Murakami. And so I unconsciously chose to read a book which is perhaps a perfect precursor to The Castle.
Problem solved as to what to read next.