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Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart

Much like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1995's poison-gas attack on Tokyo's subway system had a much deeper impact on Japanese culture than could be quantitatively measured in casualties and survivors. When viewed in tandem with the Kobe earthquake, which occurred two months earlier almost to the day, the incident seems endemic of the country's collective psyche, shaken to the core by profound, inexplicable tragedy. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) reconstructs the harrowing events of the gas attack in Underground, the first of two new Murakami books being released simultaneously by separate publishers. The other, the gorgeously melancholic novel Sputnik Sweetheart, makes not even a passing mention of either the subway gassing or the Kobe earthquake. But echoes of the fallout are unmistakable in the novel's wispy anomie, just as they are in contemporary films like Takeshi Kitano's haunting Fireworks and Shinji Aoyama's minimalist epic Eureka, a 217-minute meditation on loss that's currently touring the country as part of the Shooting Gallery series. Murakami's title evokes the sad image of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, as a metaphor for human longing, "a lonely lump of metal" floating aimlessly in Earth's orbit. Narrated by a self-described lump orbiting a brighter star, Sputnik Sweetheart unfolds like a conventional love triangle, except that none of the lines intersect. The hero, a twentysomething teacher with little sense of purpose, is devoted to Sumire, a dynamic would-be novelist in the Kerouac mold who writes fractions of stories that never crystallize—beginnings that lack endings, or vice versa. She, in turn, falls in love with Miu, an older married woman of Korean descent who responds to her youthful energy, but remains oblivious to her romantic desire. After taking a job as Miu's personal assistant, Sumire accompanies her to a remote island off the coast of Greece, but when Sumire mysteriously disappears one night, the narrator is flown in from Japan to search for her. From there, Murakami enters into the supernatural, but he hardly needs a dramatic segue, as his characters are already cast adrift in his rueful, elegant prose. The author's distinctive voice gives way to moving testimonials in Underground, a Studs Terkel-inspired undertaking that weaves a partial portrait of the Tokyo gas attack through interviews of the survivors. Cleanly divided into separate sections for each of the seven subway lines targeted by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, the book assembles the oft-reluctant statements of the victims, from businessmen to station attendants. Their injuries vary from minor to debilitating, but even for those few spared the lingering aftereffects of exposure to sarin gas—a substance 26 times as deadly as cyanide—the psychological scars are still evident. A patient, exhaustive feat of journalism, Underground serves as both a literary memorial and a frank examination of a society in search of its bearings.

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