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).