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Sunday, June 3, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Japanese author's focus, flavor appeal to younger interests

Special to The Seattle Times

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"Norwegian Wood," Haruki Murakami's second novel, just published in America in paperback, sold more than 4 million copies in Japan when it was published in 1987.

Murakami became a literary star in his homeland. Tiring of his celebrity status, he moved to Italy, Greece and then the United States. After 10 years as an expatriate, he moved back to Japan.

The restless author's writing has a flavor more American than most American writing. He has a keen feel for our pop culture - the music, the literature, the icons. His style is unquestionably unique, but there are obvious echoes of Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald - both of whom he has translated into Japanese - and hard-boiled writers such as Raymond Chandler.

Two by Murakami


"Norwegian Wood"
by Haruki Murakami
Vintage, $13

"Sputnik Sweetheart"
by Haruki Murakami
Knopf, $23

The title taken from the Beatles song, "Norwegian Wood" is a universal coming-of-age story: A 20-year-old college student named Watanabe loves two girls. One, Naoko, is a childhood friend living in a mental institution. The other, Midori, is a fellow university student whose vitality makes her the anti-Naoko.

Midori wears short skirts, talks frankly about sex and unabashedly believes in love.

Naoko, whose boyfriend committed suicide, warns Watanabe, "I'm a far more flawed human being than you realize. My sickness is a lot worse than you think: It has far deeper roots. And that's why I want you to go on ahead of me if you can. Don't wait for me. ... Otherwise I might end up taking you with me."

But Watanabe is 20 and in love and must follow the road to its end.

Some older Japanese critics consider Murakami frivolous because his characters seem disinterested in politics and social issues.

Young readers love him because he writes about detachment, individualism, romance and loneliness - and does so in clean, simple prose with occasional poetic bursts of surprising power.

His characters are partly defined by their preferences in music and literature, which is the universal prerogative of the young.

By largely ignoring the political battles of the 1960s, when the book is set, and instead focusing on the personal struggles of three individuals, Murakami wrote a book that is as relevant in America today as it was in Japan then.

"Sputnik Sweetheart" is Murakami's seventh novel and his closest in tone and style to "Norwegian Wood." The narrator, a 24-year-old teacher, is only slightly older than Watanabe and is similarly detached and existential.

"Who am I," he asks. "What am I searching for? Where am I headed?"

The closest he comes to answering these questions, he feels, is in conversation with a 22-year-old woman named Sumire, an aspiring writer who quotes Jack Kerouac and wants to be like a character in one of his novels: "wild, cool, dissolute."

The narrator tells her that without her his life would be like " `The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin' minus `Mack the Knife.' "

Sumire, however, is in love with Miu, a businesswoman with bleached white hair who is 17 years older. Apparently abandoning her writing, Sumire takes a job as Miu's personal assistant and travels to Greece with her. Sumire then disappears.

The narrator comes to Greece to help Miu look for her. What he finds instead of Sumire is two stories she has written on her laptop computer. One explains Sumire's intense but ambivalent desire for Miu; the other, with shades of surrealism, explains Miu's bleached hair and its cause, a bizarre incident that left Miu damaged and alienated.

This is a love story that becomes a metaphysical mystery and a meditation on human connection. "Sputnik Sweetheart" lacks the wide-eyed buzz of "Norwegian Wood," but replaces this with an earned calm that is, in the end, even more satisfying.

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