By Haruki Murakami , Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, Alfred A. Knopf,210 pages, $23
A Haruki Murakami novel is like the David Hockney painting of a swimming pool into which someone has just dived, fallen or been pushed. The colors are warm, the details realistic. The scene has an inviting transparency--no other contemporary Japanese novelist other than Murakami seems easier for the Western reader to enjoy. Yet there's a mystery at the center of it.
In Hockney's painting, the heavy solid body in the pool is invisible. We infer its existence only from the lacy shimmer of water the splash has left hanging in the air. The body need not be human--it could be a sofa or a garbage can--but we assume its humanity in the same leap of imagination in which we assume that, since a splash has risen from the surface, something had to have caused it by falling in.
In a Murakami novel, there are equivalents to the splash, but we don't assume that a solid body is at the bottom. We're made to wonder, instead, if it isn't a portal to another existence--an upside-down escape hatch from the world of PCs, fax machines, premium beers, classical music, rock 'n' roll, plane tickets, European fashion, graduate degrees and romance as dictated by Hollywood films.
Like his earlier, longer novels, "Sputnik Sweetheart" evokes this international culture that affluent people of all nations share. Murakami makes us comfortable. We imagine that we understand his characters--hip, attractive young people; they seduce us even as they seduce one another. We enjoy Murakami's wit and his skill at rendering the sensuous details of any scene--a sunstruck Greek island, the grimy security office of a Tokyo supermarket.
Then there's a splash.
Below it, however briefly, is an opening to somewhere else.
In "Sputnik Sweetheart," the alternative universe is an escape hatch for people who are hopelessly frustrated in this one. The narrator has become a grade-school teacher by default; his emotional life is invested in a young woman, Sumire, who is his best friend but has no sexual interest in him. Sumire's desire to write novels and live a disorderly writer's life is short-circuited by her sudden love for Miu, a businesswoman nearly twice her age.
Miu trained to be a concert pianist, but 14 years ago she experienced herself splitting into two people, one of whom vanished to "the other side." The person who remains is emotionally sterile. She can't respond to Sumire sexually, though Sumire sheds her bohemian habits, works devotedly for Miu and accompanies her on a European trip that ends on the island.
Then it's Sumire's turn to disappear--all of her, from a speck of land with no exits. Miu summons the narrator, who finds enigmatic writings in Sumire's computer--including her transcription of Miu's strange story--but nothing solid, no body at the bottom of the pool.
The rest of this short novel is a meditation on human loneliness. The title comes from Miu's confusing the word "beatnik"--what Sumire aspires to be--with the name of the first Soviet satellite, which translates as "traveling companion." Without the person or vocation they love, Murakami's characters conclude, they too are like "a poor little lump of metal, spinning around the Earth," tethered by nothing but gravity.
A meditation, though, isn't the same as a climax. Murakami's ventures into the surreal in such major works as "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "Dance Dance Dance" didn't bother us. They made the stories more interesting, more unpredictable, more profound.
But "Sputnik Sweetheart" is a story that ends before the novel does--mainly because this version of the escape-hatch idea is too blunt to be persuasive. People don't vanish through wormholes in the cosmic fabric, no matter how much we might fear or wish they do.