On an island of lost souls

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, trans Philip Gabriel Harvill, £12, 228pp
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The Independent Culture

If you have followed recent Japanese cinema, noting such disturbing tales as the Ring cycle and Audition, or even if you have paid attention to Japanese current events ­ from the physical and financial earthquakes to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway ­ you will have noticed that the globe's other fractured island nation has been getting stranger. It's a toss-up as to whether the novelist Haruki Murakami reflects that strangeness or whether he has, through transmuting his personal concerns into a series of internationally successful books, given it a shape on to which others have latched.

Murakami's previous books include the novels A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Underground, a collection of interviews with the subway attack survivors and Aum cult members. When discussing him, it's too easy to reach for the "magic realist" label. Rather, his closest Western equivalents are sly, open-minded, insinuating voices such as Jonathan Carroll, Geoff Ryman, Nicholas Royle and M John Harrison.

Sputnik Sweetheart, his latest novel (sensitively translated by Philip Gabriel), is slimmer than some of his earlier books ­ a stiletto rather than a samurai sword. It is constructed out of distancing effects, with an unnamed narrator.

This twentysomething slacker-cum-primary schoolteacher only gets the identifying initial "K" when he transcribes notes about her life from his would-be novelist friend, Sumire. The meat of the book is a relationship between Sumire, a girl who has always seemed not all there, and Miu, a Korean businesswoman and former piano player who ­ as it turns out ­ is literally not all there. An incident some years earlier appears to have split her into two selves. The remnant is a frigid, white-haired solid ghost always aware that her other half is out behind the mirror, having a better (or at least a different) time.

In an echo of Antonioni's film L'avventura, the crisis moment is a Mediterranean disappearance. That summons K from Japan, where he is having a compensatory affair with the mother of one of his pupils because he can't connect with Sumire, to the Greek isle where Sumire and Miu have been holidaying. The only clue that he discovers is a prose fragment that Sumire wrote, explaining (or making up an explanation for) Miu's condition. This brings in the doppelganger element and a curious stretch of spiritual peril atop a stalled Ferris wheel.

All these islands, and half-people, represented by partial or deliberately withheld names, suggest the novel's theme of personal isolation: of the inevitability of missed connections and misunderstandings even between people who seem completely in tune. Murakami does not privilege his misfits, who are identified with Laika (the dog inside the second Sputnik), but he suggests that everyone is like them.

Walk-on characters, such as a supermarket security guard and a shoplifting pupil, take up a sizeable chunk of the last few chapters when the pressing matters of Miu and Sumire seem in need of resolution. They suffer from precisely the same dissociation that afflicts the narrator and the two women whose story he is not quite telling.

Sputnik Sweetheart, with its precise but deceptive prose, can be read inside two hours, but is carefully put together like a low-yield time bomb to stay in the mind and throw off associations. There are deliberate ellipses, but it's not a baffling novel. Indeed, every apparent throwaway ­ a quotation from Jack Kerouac about wilderness living, discourses in wine and music ­ feeds back into the central matter, making the book read like an airy but unpadded short story.

It's vague and neat at the same time, and perhaps the irony is that it simply and effectively makes a connection with the reader while arguing that such connections between people are not possible.

Kim Newman's latest novel is 'Life's Lottery'(Simon & Schuster)