What Were You Smoking, Mr Murakami?

A strong opening usually sets tone for a great a novel. Few can beat the epic Charles Dickens opening from The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, but recently I picked up Haruki Murakami’s lesser known book, Sputink Sweetheart while browsing at a bookstore and was treated to this amazing opening passage.

In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains — flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado’s intensity doesn’t abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and everything, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be 17 years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all ended. Almost.

I stood stunned, and the next thing I remember was standing and the cashier’s desk and giving out my credit card.

That opening is so awesome, that I strongly recommend that you scroll up and read it again. It introduces the protagonist. It talks about love. Not just romantic love of the mushy kind, this is some kind of monumental love that spans continents and lays waste anything that comes in the way. It talks about ferociousness of the character. It talks about the impossibility of it. And then the tribute to Dickens:

This is where it all began, and where it all ended.

Murakami is ofcourse the one of the greatest contemperory writers, if not the greatest. His deep meditation on urbanism, consciousness, order and chaos “The Wind Up Bird Chronicle”, is a masterpiece that can only be experienced. Critics wonder how he can create poetry while writing prose. Not only does Murakami whip up atmosphere, he also creates characters that are instantly identifiable.

Next, we get to learn more about Sumire

At the time, Sumire — “Violet” in Japanese — was struggling to become a writer. No matter how many choices life might bring her way, it was novelist or nothing. Her resolve was a regular Rock of Gibraltar. Nothing could come between her and her faith in literature.
After she graduated from a public high school in Kanagawa Prefecture, she entered the liberal arts department of a cosy little private college in Tokyo. She found the college totally out of touch, a lukewarm, dispirited place, and she loathed it — and found her fellow students (which would include me, I’m afraid) hopelessly dull, second-rate specimens. Unsurprisingly, then, just before her junior year, she simply upped and left. Staying there any longer, she concluded, was a waste of time. I think it was the right move, but if I can be allowed a mediocre generalization, don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life and it’d lose even its imperfection.

You know already know Sumire is a rebel and an outcast, this passage reconfirms it. We now know that Sumire is committed to a goal in her life, that of being a writer and is an intellectual who is enthralled with literature.

Within brackets, it apologetically introduces you to the narrator. Like all Murakami narrators, this person has a self deprecating style of humour with a strong self awareness and a meditative tone that sometimes goes into mediocre generalizations.

Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life and it’d lose even its imperfection.

He almost makes you agree that imperfection is a goal. Contrast this to the Western world view, where you are guilty of resting unless you reach perfection. Since Sumire is a rebel, she most probably seeks some kind of perfection. In the Western society, Sumire would probably have been at home, but in the East, where its almost a crime to seek perfection, Sumire irks calm narrator. It almost makes feel the narrator is being passive aggrssive by pulling up Sumire for seeking perfection. You don’t walk away from your friends thinking they are dull and boring. You just accept the imperfection, a way of life.

Lets look at the third passage

Sumire was a hopeless romantic, a bit set in her ways — innocent of the ways of the world, to put a nice spin on it. Start her talking and she’d go on nonstop, but if she was with someone she didn’t get along with — most people in the world, in other words — she barely opened her mouth. She smoked too much, and you could count on her to lose her ticket every time she took the train. She’d get so engrossed in her thoughts at times she’d forget to eat, and she was as thin as one of those war orphans in an old Italian film — like a stick with eyes. I’d love to show you a photo of her, but I don’t have any. She hated having her photograph taken — no desire to leave behind for posterity a Portrait of the Artist as a Young (Wo)Man. If there were a photograph of Sumire taken at that time, I know it would provide a valuable record of how special certain people can be.

I read this passage again and again, just to understand how special certain writers can be.

There is so much stuff there in that passage, I don’t even know where to begin. To put a nice spin on it. The narrator is certainly nursing a grevience with Sumire. We reconfirm that she is a rebel and a romantic, that she day dreams, that she is a seeker, that she does not care about the world, that she does not care about her train ticket, that she does not want to be photographed. Mundane things like a train tickets suddenly show that Sumire is incompatible with the necessities of the modern world. I mean, train tickets? Why is there even such a thing? Don’t train tickets make us panic all the time? Tear down our mind palaces and bring us crashing down to the reality of getting counted in our urban systems?

She hated having her photograph taken — no desire to leave behind for posterity a Portrait of the Artist as a Young (Wo)Man.

I just loved the way that expression was used and a quiet hint was dropped. Now we know Sumire is not only a rebel, outcast and a romantic, but the narrator grudgingly accepts that she is an artist too, a very good one, who may actually end up doing outstanding work and become famous. So is the narrator jealous?

I could go on and on, the next paragraph, introduces the other main character Miu,

I’m getting the order of events mixed up. The woman Sumire fell in love with was named Miu. At least that’s what everyone called her. I don’t know her real name, a fact that caused problems later on, but again I’m getting ahead of myself. Miu was Korean by nationality, but she didn’t speak a word of Korean until she decided to study it when she was in her midtwenties. She was born and raised in Japan and studied at a music academy in France, so as well as Japanese she was fluent in both French and English. She always dressed well, in a refined way, with expensive yet modest accessories, and she drove a twelve-cylinder, navy-blue Jaguar.

I will leave that for your own interpretations, but these opening passages really woke me up. As a reader, I felt that I was grabbed by the collar and pushed into the void between Sumire and the narrator. Both the narrator and Sumire are standing on my either side and facing each other without making eye contact, thinking about the possiblities of life, and what could have been.

What happens next? I have no idea. I just read the first ten pages and kept re-reading them as if I found a map to an ancient treasure.

Sputnik
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