Authors: Haruki Murakami
Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Teachers, #Missing persons, #Japan, #Unrequited love, #Fiction, #Women novelists, #Businesswomen
Her stepmother’s love for her never wavered during her long, difficult years of adolescence, and when Sumire declared she was going to quit college and write novels, her stepmother—though she had her own opinions on the matter—respected Sumire’s desire. She’d always been pleased that Sumire loved to read so much, and she encouraged her literary pursuits.
Her stepmother eventually won her father over, and they decided that until Sumire turned twenty-eight they would provide her with a small stipend. If she wasn’t able to make a living writing by then, she’d be on her own. If her stepmother hadn’t spoken up in her defense, Sumire might very well have been thrown out—penniless, without the necessary social skills—into the wilderness of a somewhat humorless reality. Where the earth, after all, doesn’t creak and groan its way around the sun just so human beings can have a good time and a chuckle.
Sumire met her Sputnik Sweetheart a little more than two years after she’d dropped out of college.
Sumire was living in a one-room apartment in Kichijoji where she made do with the minimum amount of furniture and the maximum number of books. She’d get up at noon, and in the afternoon, with the enthusiasm of a pilgrim making her way through sacred hills, take a walk around Inogashira Park. On sunny days she’d sit on a park bench, chewing on bread, puffing one cigarette after another, reading. On rainy or cold days she’d go into an old-fashioned coffeehouse where classical music played at full volume, sink down into a worn-out sofa, and read her books, a serious look on her face as she listened to Schubert’s symphonies, Bach’s cantatas. In the evening she’d have one beer and buy some ready-to-eat food at the supermarket for her dinner.
By 11:00 p.m. she’d settle down at her desk. There’d always be a thermos full of hot coffee, a coffee mug (one I gave her on her birthday, with a picture of Snafkin on it), a pack of Marlboros, and a glass ashtray. Of course she had a word processor as well. Each key with its very own letter.
A deep silence ensued. Her mind was as clear as the winter night sky, the Big Dipper and North Star in place, twinkling brightly. She had so many things she had to write, so many stories to tell. If she could only find the right outlet, heated thoughts and ideas would gush out like lava, congealing into a steady stream of inventive works the likes of which the world had never seen. People’s eyes would pop wide open at the sudden debut of this Promising Young Writer with a Rare Talent. A photo of her, smiling coolly, would appear in the arts section of the newspaper, and editors would beat a path to her door.
But it never happened that way. Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning
ot that she suffered from writer’s block. Far from it—she wrote endlessly, everything that came into her head. The problem was, she wrote too much. You’d think that all she’d have to do was cut out the extra parts and she’d be fine, but things weren’t that easy. She could never decide on the big picture—what was necessary and what wasn’t. The following day when she reread what she’d printed out, every line looked absolutely essential. Or else she’d white out the whole thing. Sometimes, in despair, she’d rip up her entire manuscript and consign it to the trash. If this had been a winter night and the room had had a fireplace, there would have been a certain warmth to it—imagine a scene from
but Sumire’s apartment not only lacked a fireplace, it didn’t even have a phone. Not to mention a decent mirror.
n weekends, Sumire would come over to my apartment, drafts of her novels spilling out of her arms— the lucky manuscripts that had escaped the massacre. Still, they made quite a pile. Sumire would show her manuscripts to only one person in the whole world. Me.
In college I’d been two years ahead of her, and our majors were different, so there wasn’t much chance we’d meet. We met by pure chance. It was a Monday in May, the day after a string of holidays, and I was at the bus stop in front of the main gate of the college, standing there reading a Paul Nizan novel I’d found in a used-book store. A short girl beside me leaned over, took a look at the book, and asked me, Why
of all people? She sounded like she was trying to pick a fight. Like she wanted to kick something and send it flying but lacking anything suitable attacked my choice of reading material.
Sumire and I were a lot alike. Devouring books came as naturally to us as breathing. Every spare moment we’d settle down in some quiet corner, endlessly turning page after page. Japanese novels, foreign novels, new works, classics, avant-garde to best-seller—as long as there was something intellectually stimulating in a book, we’d read it. We’d hang out in libraries, spend whole days browsing in Kanda, the used-book-store mecca in Tokyo. I’d never run across anyone else who read so avidly—so deeply, so widely—as Sumire, and I’m sure she felt the same.
I graduated around the time Sumire dropped out of college, and after that she’d hang out at my place two or three times a month. Occasionally I’d go over to her apartment, but you could barely squeeze two people in there, and most of the time she’d wind up at my place. We’d talk about the novels we’d read and exchange books. I cooked a lot of dinners. I didn’t mind cooking, and Sumire was the kind of person who’d rather go hungry than cook for herself. She’d bring me presents from her part-time jobs to thank me. Once she had a part-time job in the warehouse of a drug company and brought me six dozen condoms. They’re probably still in the back of a drawer somewhere.
he novels—or fragments of novels, really—that Sumire wrote weren’t as terrible as she thought. True, at times her style resembled a patchwork quilt sewn by a group of stubborn old ladies, each with her own tastes and complaints, working in grim silence. Add to this Sumire’s sometimes manic-depressive personality, and things occasionally got out of control. As if this weren’t enough, Sumire was dead set on creating a massive nineteenth-century-style Total Novel, the kind of portmanteau packed with every possible phenomenon in order to capture the soul and human destiny.
This being said, Sumire’s writing had a remarkable freshness about it, an attempt to honestly portray what was important to her. On the plus side she didn’t try to imitate anyone else’s style, and she didn’t attempt to distill everything into some precious, clever little pieces. That’s what I liked most about her writing. It wouldn’t have been right to pare down the direct power in her writing just so it could take on some pleasant, cozy form. There was no need to rush things. She still had plenty of time for detours. As the saying goes, “What’s nurtured slowly grows well.”
y head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about,” Sumire said.
“Images, scenes, snatches of words . . . in my mind they’re all glowing, all alive.
they shout at me. A great new story is about to be born—I can feel it. It’ll transport me to some brand-new place. Problem is, once I sit at my desk and put all these down on paper, I realize something vital is missing. It doesn’t crystallize—no crystals, just pebbles. And I’m not transported anywhere.”
With a frown, Sumire picked up her two-hundred-and-fiftieth stone and tossed it into the pond.
“Maybe I’m lacking something. Something you absolutely must have to be a novelist.”
A deep silence ensued. It seemed she was seeking my run-of-the-mill opinion.
After a while I started to speak. “A long time ago in China there were cities with high walls surrounding them, with huge, magnificent gates. The gates weren’t just doors for letting people in or out but had greater significance. People believed the city’s soul resided in the gates. Or at least that it
reside there. It’s like in Europe in the Middle Ages when people felt a city’s heart lay in its cathedral and central square. Which is why even today in China there are lots of wonderful gates still standing. Do you know how the Chinese built these gates?”
“I have no idea,” Sumire answered.
“People would take carts out to old battlefields and gather the bleached bones that were buried there or that lay scattered about. China’s a pretty ancient country—lots of old battlegrounds—so they never had to search far. At the entrance to the city they’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones inside. They hoped that by commemorating them this way the dead soldiers would continue to guard their town. There’s more. When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinkle their blood on the gate. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried-out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive. At least that was the idea.”
Sumire waited silently for me to go on.
“Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the
“So what you’re saying is that I go out on my own and find my own dog?”
“And shed fresh blood?”
Sumire bit her lip and thought about this. She tossed another hapless stone into the pond. “I really don’t want to kill an animal if I can help it.”
“It’s a metaphor,” I said. “You don’t have to actually kill anything.”
e were sitting as usual side by side at Inogashira Park, on her favorite bench. The pond spread out before us. A windless day. Leaves lay where they had fallen, pasted on the surface of the water. I could smell a bonfire somewhere in the distance. The air was filled with the scent of the end of autumn, and far-off sounds were painfully clear.
“What you need is time and experience,” I said.
“Time and experience,” Sumire mused, and gazed up at the sky. “There’s not much you can do about time—it just keeps on passing. But experience? Don’t tell me that. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t have any sexual desire. And what sort of experience can a writer have if she doesn’t feel passion? It’d be like a chef without an appetite.”
“I don’t know where your sexual desire has gone,” I said. “Maybe it’s just hiding somewhere. Or gone on a trip and forgotten to come home. But falling in love is always a pretty crazy thing. It might appear out of the blue and just grab you. Who knows—maybe even tomorrow.”
Sumire turned her gaze from the sky to my face. “Like a tornado?”
“You could say that.”
She thought about it. “Have you ever actually seen a tornado?”
“No,” I replied. Thankfully, Tokyo wasn’t exactly Tornado Alley.
About half a year later, just as I had predicted, suddenly, preposterously, a tornado-like love seized Sumire. With a woman seventeen years older. Her very own Sputnik Sweetheart.
s Sumire and Miu sat there together at the table at the wedding reception, they did what everybody else in the world does in such situations, namely, introduce themselves. Sumire hated her own name and tried to conceal it whenever she could. But when somebody asks you your name, the only polite thing to do is to go ahead and give it.
According to her father, her mother had chosen the name Sumire. She loved the Mozart song of the same name and had decided long before that if she had a daughter that would be her name. On a shelf in their living room was a record of Mozart’s songs, doubtless the one her mother had listened to, and when she was a child, Sumire would carefully lay this heavy LP on the turntable and listen to the song over and over. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was the soprano, Walter Gieseking on piano. Sumire didn’t understand the lyrics, but from the graceful motif she felt sure the song was a paean to beautiful violets blooming in a field. Sumire loved that image.
In junior high, though, she ran across a Japanese translation of the song in her school library and was shocked. The lyrics told of a callous shepherd’s daughter trampling down a hapless little violet in a field. The girl didn’t even notice she’d flattened the flower. It was based on a Goethe poem, and Sumire found nothing redeeming about it, no lesson to be learned.
ow could my mother give me the name of such an awful song?” Sumire said, scowling.
Miu arranged the corners of the napkin on her lap, smiled neutrally, and looked at Sumire. Miu’s eyes were quite dark. Many colors mixed together, but clear and unclouded.
“Do you think the song is beautiful?”
“Yes, the song itself is pretty.”
“If the music is lovely, I think that should be enough. After all, not everything in this world can be beautiful, right? Your mother must have loved that song so much the lyrics didn’t bother her. And besides, if you keep making that kind of face you’re going to get some permanent wrinkles.”
Sumire allowed her scowl to relax.
“Maybe you’re right, but I just felt so let down. I mean, the only tangible sort of thing my mother left me was that name. Other than
“Well, I think Sumire is a lovely name. I like it very much,” Miu said, and tilted her head slightly, as if to view things from a new angle. “By the way, is your father here at the reception?”
Sumire looked around. The reception hall was large, but her father was tall and she easily spotted him. He was sitting two tables away, his face turned sideways, talking with a short, elderly man in a morning coat. His smile was so trusting and warm it would melt a glacier. Under the light of the chandeliers, his handsome nose rose up softly, like a rococo cameo, and even Sumire, who was used to seeing him, was moved by its beauty. Her father truly belonged at this kind of formal gathering. His mere presence lent the place a sumptuous atmosphere. Like cut flowers in a large vase or a jet-black stretch limousine.
hen she spied Sumire’s father, Miu was speechless. Sumire could hear the intake of breath. Like the sound of a velvet curtain being drawn aside on a peaceful morning to let in the sunlight to wake someone very special to you. Maybe I should have brought a pair of opera glasses, Sumire mused. But she was used to the dramatic reaction her father’s looks brought out in people—especially middle-aged women. What is beauty? What value does it have? Sumire always found it strange. But no one ever answered her. There was just that same immutable effect.