Enough has been written about hype surrounding the publication of Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84. The novel, published in three parts in the original Japanese and as a single, fat volume in English, was on bestseller lists around the world for months. It has been called Murakami’s most ambitious work till date. Some felt that his gamble with the length worked and that Murakami managed to produce a work of great complexity and depth, while others found the novel to be bewilderingly tedious and repetitive.
As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been a Murakami fan. I know that he treads the same ground in each of his novels, addressing the same issues of urban disconnection and loneliness. His narrators tend to be passive men who have some rather remarkable experiences, which usually feature either talking cats or over-sexed and gorgeous women or both. I don’t care. I still like Murakami, because his words speak to me. There’s something about how he describes the inner lives of his protagonists that is achingly beautiful. He describes that urban malaise, loneliness, with such grace and precision, that you feel no other writer could do justice to it. And it’s weird, because it’s not like his prose is lush and descriptive. ‘Casual’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ are his style, with a liberal dose of symbolism. While he writes about modern Japanese society, his stories have always seemed so universal.
Being the fan that I am, I’m sorry to say that I was rather disappointed by 1Q84. I applaud Murakami’s ambition and his stamina and his great imagination, but this book felt clunky. There was none of the grace and enigma that marked the slimmer Kafka on the Shore or Sputnik Sweetheart. His most voluminous work before this was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but that was definitely a more accomplished work – rife with horror about base human deeds. The chapters that dealt directly with Japan’s involvement in Manchuria during the Second World War would have made a good enough book on their own.
In 1Q84, Murakami harks back to more recent history: specifically the Aum Shikrikyo cult, which was responsible for the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The cult described in 1Q84, Sakigake, has not yet gone to such awful extremes, but it is sinister nonetheless. It’s run on strictly autocratic lines, with a great Leader at it centre. Not much is known to the outside world about Sakigake beyond the fact that it calls itself a commune and its main business seems to be cultivating and selling vegetables. However, as the novel progresses we learn more and more about the true nefarious nature of the cult.
The action begins with the publication of Air Chrysalis, a novel by the seventeen year old schoolgirl Fuka-Eri. The novel wins a prestigious literary award and becomes a bestseller. The novel tells the story of the Little People, enigmatic little creatures who have great wisdom and great power, and who seem to be based on real life creatures with a connection to Sakigake. The novel’s publication throws into turmoil Fuka-Eri’s life, and along with her, that of Tengo Kawana, a math teacher and aspiring writer who had, in collusion with the author, her guardian and her editor, re-written and polished the novel before it was published. Then there’s Aomame, a gym instructor who moonlights as an assassin for a rich old Dowager. What binds the two women together is a vendetta against all men who abuse women, and Aomame is particularly efficient of getting rid of such men. One of her assignments brings her into contact with Sakigake and after that, her life changes forever. The stories of Tengo and Aomame are linked by a long-ago afternoon they shared, and during the course of the story we find out the nature of their relationship and the lasting effect they had on each other.
1Q84 certainly has its high points: the longing that Tengo and Aomame have for each other is wonderfully rendered, as is the peculiar relationship that Tengo shares with Fuka-Eri. Then there is that wonderful chapter which appeared in the New Yorker, featuring the short story Town of Cats.
Unfortunately, the weak points outweigh the strengths of the novel. Let’s begin with the title. The events of the novel take place in the year 1984 but as Aomame notices, it isn’t the same world as she has always known. For one thing, there were two moons in the sky. And then major events of national significance seemed to have occurred, of which Aomame had no memory. She christens this world ‘1Q84’ because its a weird doppleganger of the actual 1984 she knew (the number ‘9’ in Japanese is pronounced the same as ‘Q’). The title is also a clear reference to George Orwell’s 1984. However, the parallel drawn between Sakigake and the authoritarian society of 1984 seems too forced. Also the sinister Little People never really come across as quite so sinister. Their lines are like something out of a book for kids; they say things like “Ho Ho Ho”. Their appearance is often bewildering and comical, but never frightening.
In twining together the stories of the cult Sakigake and the personal quests of Tengo and Aomame, Murakami seems to be bringing together two very important questions of an individual’s life: the larger question of where we come from and the smaller, more intensely explored question of what our purpose in life is. He’s done this before to greater effect in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Here it just seems clumsy and very forced. The only reason all the cloak-and-dagger stuff about Sakigake exists is so that the two protagonists can meet each other in the end. Unlike the chapters on Manchuria in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which explored the question of historical guilt, the Sakigake portions don’t really seem to say much.
But of course, every writer is allowed an off-day. And even though I did struggle through some portions 1Q84, I did race through others. Murakami hasn’t lost his ability to weave a good tale; he just needs to be a little less self-indulgent next time.
*This is part of the Mt TBR Challenge as well as the Chunkster Challenge
**I know it’s weird to be posting book no.1 after book no. 2, but I had put off writing this post for so very long simply because I had to sort out my complicated feelings towards the book. The delay is forgiven, I hope.
- 1Q84 (A Review) (hapsarishita.wordpress.com)
- “1Q84″, Q is for ? (theecaffeinatedcrow.wordpress.com)
- Murakami: 1Q84 (eahand.wordpress.com)
- 1Q84: Finished and Shelved. (greatgreths.wordpress.com)
- Christopher Tayler: Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’ (lrb.co.uk)
- How to Read Murakami (thedailybeast.com)
- BOOK REVIEW: The other side of the world (tech.mit.edu)
- 1Q84 Is Science Fiction Done Right (bigthink.com)