1Q84: Haruki Murakami

★★★½

Back when I first moved to London, and was even smaller and more daunted by it than I am now, I found a room in a flat owned by a successful lawyer, who also happened to have a select but very admirable collection of books which she didn’t mind sharing. Thanks to her, I became acquainted with two writers who impressed me with the clever way they deal with myths and ideas: the first was Borges; the second Murakami. Kafka on the Shore is one of my favourite books and, although I’ve only read a few of Murakami’s novels, I’ve had my eye on 1Q84 ever since it came out.

The UK edition is published in two volumes, which annoyed me slightly, but earlier this year I spotted the one-volume US edition at Newark airport while waiting for a flight home. Ever since then it’s been sitting reproachfully on my shelf, waiting for me to have enough time to do justice to it. One thing’s for sure: this is a beast of a book, running to 1157 pages, just 200 pages shy of War and Peace, although of course Murakami is easier to read. If you’re familiar with his other books you’ll know what to expect: a glimpse of modern Japanese society, seasoned with folklore, mythology and contemporary icons.

In giving an introduction to the plot I’m going to try to avoid giving away any major spoilers, but at the same time I can’t really summarise a book this big without looking beyond the initial pages. So, if you genuinely don’t want to find out a thing about it, please stop now and go and read it, and then come back and let me know what you think. If you prefer to get a flavour, read on.

The story begins following two different plot strands. In one, a young woman named Aomame – sports instructor, loner and occasional assassin – clambers down the emergency stairway from a flyover after her cab gets stuck in the traffic and threatens to make her late for a vital appointment. After reaching the foot of the stairway, nothing obvious has changed. But, soon afterwards, she notices that there are now two moons in the sky when previously there had been only one. And other things have changed. Policemen carry different weapons to those she remembers: the result of a change, two years earlier, after a bloody battle in the mountains with members of a radical revolutionary sect, which Aomame has never even heard of before. Presently her sponsor, knowing Aomame’s dislike of violence against women, offers her a new commission: to use her specialised skills to kill the leader of a secretive religious cult, who is suspected of raping prepubescent girls. Of course, no job is ever entirely straightforward. But Aomame will discover that this one will force her to question the nature of her reality, and her purpose there, as never before.

While Aomame wrestles with the question of substitute realities, Tengo Kawana is eking out a modest but entirely satisfactory existence as a part-time teacher of maths at a cram school, and a part-time (currently unpublished) novelist. One day his friend, the editor Komatsu, offers him a tempting proposition: to rewrite and improve a brilliantly conceived, but dreadfully written, submission to a young writers’ competition. The author is a young woman who goes by the name Fuka-Eri and Komatsu believes that, with her ideas, Tengo’s technical polish and Komatsu’s business acumen, the three of them can make it big, and split the profits. Against his better instincts, Tengo agrees: he is intrigued both by the novel, Air Chrysalis, which draws him into its fantastical, eerie world, and by the authoress, the enigmatic, beautiful seventeen-year-old Fuka-Eri. But, gradually, Tengo begins to grow very anxious. Fuka-Eri begins to imply that the world she has described in her novel is not a fantasy but a personal experience. Strange people begin visiting Tengo to advise him to distance himself from the book. And the world around him begins to grow disconcertingly similar to the world he helped Fuka-Eri to describe in Air Chrysalis. One day, for example, he realises that there are two moons in the sky…

As you might expect, if you’ve read any Murakami before, there are references and digressions on a whole range of cultural subjects, from Proust to jazz and from Japanese legends to The Golden Bough. (I loved the way that Murakami used that, actually. It reminded me, for obvious reasons, of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die.) The sheer breadth of the man’s knowledge is humbling. It’s supposed to be a meditation on Orwell’s 1984, which I didn’t actually feel was that strong an influence on the actual feel of the book – there was much more of a surreal ‘down the rabbit-hole’ atmosphere to it. There were all sorts of wonderful tangents about local folklore, the purposes of religion and the boundaries between one world and another, which I thought were marvellous – and frankly, any book that can make me eager to have another go at The Golden Bough deserves credit.

Throughout, of course, the story is written in the strangely dispassionate, matter-of-fact style which I think of as typically Murakami, though of course I’ve never read his novels in the original Japanese and have no idea how they ‘should’ feel: my impressions come entirely from Jay Rubin’s translations. With any other writer, I would probably be immensely frustrated by the detailed relation of events, which never quite descends into emotional engagement, but for some reason it works here (with two possible exceptions: first, the excessively detailed scenes in which characters cook their dinners; and, secondly, the sex scenes, which I found to be so soulless and matter-of-fact that they were positively off-putting.)

Despite my great respect for Murakami, I still have issues with aspects of his writing. I have to briefly put on my feminist hat. His female characters have always disappointed me. The problem is that Murakami’s women are not like real women but more like hyper-sexualised male fantasies of what cute Japanese women are like – and middle-aged male fantasies at that (it was surely telling that the feisty Aomame has a preference for balding middle-aged men). I also found it seriously tedious that, every time we met a female character, we were treated to an in-depth consideration of the shape and size of her breasts, which often assumed a completely disproportionate significance in her characterisation. This wasn’t just something that cropped up when the men admired the women, but even when the women thought of themselves or of their female friends (and I should add that in Murakami’s world two young women can’t possibly be friends unless there is a Sapphic element involved – more male fantasy, I regret to say). Now that I think back, this element was present in Murakami’s other books as well, but I had never noticed it so ruthlessly forced home as in this novel.

Nevertheless, putting this (major) point aside, I did find myself utterly gripped by the final few chapters – almost breathless as I sped through the pages to find out what would happen. If you like your fiction as a blend of reality, magical realism and sci-fi, with weirdly sinister undertones, then this is certainly the book for you. It could have been a bit shorter, certainly, but something about its length gives it a languorous wallowing feel which allows the menace to creep up on you quite subtly. It’s unlikely you’ll read anything else quite like it this year. Incidentally, did anyone else wonder whether the title Air Chrysalis was some kind of veiled tribute to Cloud Atlas?

To conclude, I would like an honest show of hands. How many people had actually heard of Janáček’s Sinfonietta before? How many had heard of Janáček? I certainly hadn’t and in fact I’m listening to the first couple of movements, for the first time, as I write this. It’s much more cheerful than I had expected, rather like the soundtrack to a jolly silent film, with sudden bursts of frenzied energy. There are moments where something discordant creeps into the music. Is that why Murakami chose it as a symbol of these two young people who unexpectedly find themselves in a familiar, but subtly changed world? If I’d listened to the music at the beginning of the novel, I daresay that the book would have had a subtly different feel (should books come with a list of recommended listening from the authors? That’s an amusing idea: this author did it).

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10 thoughts on “1Q84: Haruki Murakami

  1. Zaki says:

    Heard of Janáček? I'd never heard of Murakami, let alone Janáček! But your description of the author's boob fixation gave me a good chuckle. How atypical for a man! I actually thought the Japanese were more into bottoms, based on what Clive James has written about them.

  2. Leander says:

    Hello Zaki – thanks for your comment, which also made me laugh! Must confess I'm not up on what Clive James has said; but I clearly need to read it in order to (ahem) balance out the impression Murakami has given me. 🙂 I hasten to add I am not saying that men shouldn't be allowed to appreciate the female form. It's just that I can only take so many eulogies of 17-year-old girls in tight sweaters. Yet, with all that, Murakami still has one of the most fascinating, dazzling imaginations in fiction.

  3. Zaki says:

    He must be good if you can admire his writing in spite of his fantasy-driven depiction of nubile Japanese women! The one thing that stops me recommending it for the literature appreciation course I attend is its length. It spoils your enjoyment if you're constantly wondering whether you'll have enough time to read all the books before they're covered in class.

  4. Leander says:

    If you wanted to give him a try without being committed to a very long book, you could give one of his other novels a go. As I said, I also enjoy Kafka on the Shore – and Norwegian Wood is probably his most popular novel. Mind you, I'm sure he isn't for everyone. (He isn't always for me, either; I was indifferent to Sputnik Sweetheart, another of his books.)

  5. Isi says:

    I haven't read this book yet, but I have it on my shelves.
    I have read 3 books by Murakami and I have liked all of them, even though I have to say that I didn't undestand the endings of two of them (Kafka on the shore and After dark), which is something that disappoints me a little, I have to say.
    Anyway, I have had the same feeling that you describe: the story has no emotions, but somehow it grips you. I haven't noticed the thing about women in his books. Or I have forgotten it, because I have to say I read the last book a few years ago. But yes, it sounds like maen's fantasies, absolutely unreal.
    And here in Spain we also have 2 volumes. I want to show you the two editions we have here:
    One with a horrible cover that says you nothing: http://www.popularlibros.com/libros/1q84/407456/978-84-8383-296-7
    And the one I have (it is at the end of the post): http://fromisiblog.articulo19.com/?p=7403

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Ah, Isi, you know my interest in cover art 🙂 I like your edition. Now that I've finished the book, I see why they chose to have two volumes each with a moon on the cover – it reflects the duality of the worlds and the two moons. And these are nice editions. You're right about the other one, though – hardly imaginative.

    I don't understand the ending of Kafka on the Shore either. I found the whole soldiers-in-the-forest section baffling – but I think one day I'll read it again and it will somehow click. The rest of the book is so rich – or at least I feel that it is, with all those cultural references, and with what I believe to be a retelling of the Oedipus myth – that I can almost forgive the fact I don't really have a clue what's going on sometimes. 🙂 So don't worry that you didn't understand the endings. I'm not sure that Murakami is bothered about answering all the questions he raises – it's more like he wants to give us a flavour, rather than a completely resolved story, and I find that rather appealing as it's so different to most novels.

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