It happens all the time. You're at home, relaxing after a long day at work - or, even more likely, after a long day of soothing semi-unemployment. You put on some music, open a beer, try and fix some spaghetti ... then the phone rings. And the trouble starts. Before you know it, you're swept off your feet into another world.
Anyone who's ever read one of Haruki Murakami's novels will have been somewhere rather like this before. In previous novels such as A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), the Japanese writer fashioned a unique fictional world where utter mundanity and soaring fantasy somehow go hand in hand. His narrators calmly while away the time, gently consuming cigarettes and endless meals, until something extraordinary strikes out of the blue and unreality takes charge.
Norwegian Wood (1996), the book which turned Murakami into a literary star in Japan, was different: an apparently simple, realistic campus love story. Released in two volumes (for Tokyo commuters who find single editions too unwieldy), it sold over 2 million copies in Japan alone. Murakami-mania reached such a pitch that students began dressing entirely in green or red (the colours of each volume) to show which half of the story they identified with most. Alarmed, Murakami left Japan for the anonymity of America, and wrote Dance Dance Dance (1994) - a wayward, fanciful sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase.
In his latest novel, Sputnik Sweetheart (2001), he returns to the gentle lyricism of Norwegian Wood, with another seemingly slight but charming tale of the complications of nascent love. The story follows a young teacher (who goes by the enigmatic name of K), and his unrequited love for his friend Sumire, a student obsessed with writing in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular. But then she falls in love - with a woman called Miu.
What follows is an old-fashioned unrequited love triangle, which initially has the quirky, lackadaisical aura of a Hal Hartley or Jim Jarmusch film. Sumire begins working for Miu, and rings K in the middle of the night to indulge in deep, distinctly off-the-wall conversations. Sumire can't tell Miu she loves her. K can't tell Sumire he loves her. But then Sumire and Miu suddenly go off to a Greek island on a business trip. K gets a telephone call from Miu late one night, and we're soon off to a place where 'reality was one step out of line, a cardigan with the buttons done up wrong'.
The excursion into another world is kept quite short in Sputnik Sweetheart. In a sense, it works as a device for the author to peer through life with a different lens and dramatize essentially abstract, intangible truths. It offers a way for Murakami to investigate one of his many ongoing obsessions: what he calls 'the kingdom of the soul'. Through his Alice-like mirror into an imaginative realm, he can explore potentially ponderous subjects such as love, death and loss with a rare lightness of touch.
In real life, too, Murakami has also spent large chunks of time looking in from the outside. With his wife, he has lived away from Japan for eight years, in the Greek islands and the US. He only returned to Tokyo in 1995, prompted by the Aum cult subway gas attack (which he investigated in Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, 1997), and the earthquake in his home town of Kobe.
His literary influences couldn't be less Japanese. The young Murakami - an only child - grew up in his own hard-boiled wonderland, reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler obsessively in his bedroom, listening to American music and watching American TV. He proudly admits to having read The Long Goodbye a dozen times. As a translator, he has been responsible for introducing Japanese readers to Chandler, Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and Truman Capote.
Japanese critics talk about the linguistic originality and freshness which comes from this bizarre cultural cross. But it goes further than that. To Americans, hard-boiled US crime fiction is all about gritty realism. To a young Japanese kid it is essentially fantasy. The title of the latest book says it all: Miu is nicknamed Sputnik Sweetheart by Sumire when she mistakenly thinks Beatniks are called 'Sputniks'. Similarly, in carving out his literary no-man's land between Japan and the US, Murakami has ended up with a voice which effortlessly circles the globe.