May 04, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The title of Haruki Murakami’s 1993 masterpiece Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World could well stand as shorthand for the Japanese novelist’s wonderfully eerie artistic vision. ”Hard-boiled” sums up his noirish cool; ”wonderland” points to a fondness for down-the-rabbit-hole disappearances and the revelation of hidden worlds; ”end of the world” captures his lovely tone of spare despair.

Now, two newly translated volumes reintroduce Murakami to American readers. In Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, the author trains that sensibility on nonfiction, investigating lives altered by a religious cult’s 1995 nerve-gassing of the Tokyo subway system. The book is essentially a collection of compelling transcripts, reportage unmarked by the author’s narrative skills. To see those again at play, pick up Sputnik Sweetheart, a novel that, though paler than his best work, offers the same hypnotizing pleasures.

The nameless narrator is a twentysomething schoolteacher, a guy uncomfortable with his obligation, as storyteller, to introduce himself: ”I’ve always been disturbed by the thought that I’m not painting a very objective picture of myself.” He’s long been in unrequited love with a woman named Sumire, a fledgling novelist. She, in turn, loves Miu, a middle-aged businesswoman who hires an eager Sumire as her assistant and takes her along on a jaunt to Greece — where Sumire vanishes. As the telling spins and shifts through fantasies and dreamscapes, Sputnik Sweetheart reveals itself as a lyrical tale about the surreal orbits of desire.
Both books: B+

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