I loved the title, it’s meaning derived not just from the Russian spaceships of the same name but also from the Russian word meaning “traveling companion” which is strangely apt for this rumination on mostly unfulfilled relationships.
My reaction to the initial sections (or most of it, in fact) of this short novel was that it was the same old Murakami tropes once again spewed in a not very convincing manner. If you’ve read a couple of Murakami novels you would pretty much feel like you’ve wandered in from one of them into this. However, the book did sort of redeem itself towards the end with its expositions on love, loss and the inscrutable bonds which tie us to people who we know would never be able to completely fulfill us. And of course, another Murakami staple – a bit of magical realism thrown into the utterly mundane.
So we have the usual reticent Murakami narrator, a seemingly very ordinary young man, known here only as K, who feels disconnected from most things in the world around him and has settled into a job teaching elementary students. However, he does have one invigorating passion in his life – Sumire, a girl who was a couple of years his junior in college and who now aspires to be an author. Sumire and he are as close as friends can be, with her unbounding all her unfocussed and almost naïve concerns onto him, but maddeningly frustratingly for him she doesn’t harbor any kind of sensual desire for him or for anyone else. Or so it seemed, until she came across a much older woman and fell into intense love and longing for her. This is Miu, and she is the important third cog in the story here. Sumire is a mostly unkempt heroine who doesn’t care for much beyond her writing endeavors and heart to heart conversations with K, some of which are made impulsively from a phone booth in the middle of the night. However, on meeting Miu, she experiences pretty much what K feels for her, a deep and almost painful unrequited desire. But she does get a chance to work for Miu, and eventually to go with her on a trip to Europe. They end up eventually in a small Greek island from where she sends her last letter to K. After this, the next K hears of her and Miu is a frantic, mysterious phone call from Miu informing him that Sumire has vanished and urgently asking for his help. K packs his bags on short notice to join Miu on the island and try and figure out what exactly transpired.
As all of Murakami’s novels, it’s intriguing. But also, as I’ve already mentioned, repetitive for a large part. The detached narrator, the unattainable and weirdly fascinating girl he falls for, the relationship complexities, random cats, deceptively simple prose and the dash of unresolved magic realism thrown in – all tropes from his other works. Whether it works or not is another thing though. For a lot of the initial half of the book I felt it was not really working out well. Sumire just seemed painfully naïve or silly at times rather than a mysterious fantasy woman, the metaphors employed by Murakami did not make sense and K was not much of an interesting narrator either.
However, it does pan out well towards the end. The incident which Miu talks about two thirds of the way in is genuinely creepy and enticing and it leaves the door open to a lot of interesting and relevant ruminations on love, longing, the self and its relation to others and life in general. This did redeem the book in a way for me. I would still be interested in picking up an unread Murakami if I see it somewhere, but I probably wouldn’t be enthralled enough to buy one for myself anymore.
This particular book is still a good read, especially if you’re a primer to Murakami’s works.