1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
1 May, 2014
Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People. Each one carefully scanned the room before emerging.
There is something about Haruki Murakami’s work that keeps drawing people back. I’m not exactly sure what it is. For me, it’s a warm cocoon, comfort, familiarity even though the themes addressed in his novels are often disturbing, ugly, stark. Even the otherness in his stories becomes a part of normality. And 1Q84 is no different. Yes, there are themes that are off-putting. One of my Japanese friends hesitated over giving a copy to her father to read.
From the title, I was expecting a riff on George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s actually much closer to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And there are abundant references to both in Murakami’s novel.
In 1Q84, Aomame and Tengo are our two protagonists, separated by 20 years since their last encounter, an innocent holding of hands which transformed both of their lives. Living separate lives, nevertheless, they retain strong feelings for each other. Aomame is a fitness trainer by profession who lets off steam once a month by having one night stands with balding middle-aged men. She also works for the mysterious Dowager and her gay bodyguard Tamaru as an occasional assassin of men prone to domestic violence. Tengo is a cram school teacher in mathematics who writes fiction in his spare time and has sex with his married girlfriend once a week. Both are solitary but content with their lives. Until Tengo is given the task of ghostwriting Air Chrysalis, a debut novel by a 17 year old high school girl named Fuka-Eri, which wins a prestigious award and sells millions.
There is something a little strange about Fuka-Eri whose father was once the leader of a socialist, revolutionary and later religious cult/commune named Sakigake. Her tale is at once strange and magical. And when Aomame starts to notice uncanny changes in her timeline, she increasingly begins to suspect that she has somehow slid into another timeline, one she calls 1Q84 instead of 1984. And it is then that she notices there are two moons hanging in the night sky. When Aomame is given the task of eliminating the leader of a cult who is rumoured to have a history of assaulting pre-pubescent girls, her destiny begins to veer towards that of Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Will Aomame and Tengo meet? And will they be able to evade the darkness that will inevitably hound them?
Like his other fantastical fiction, it is hard to summarise Murakami’s novel without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Murakami is adept at entwining the fantastical into the daily lives of his protagonists without too much fuss. It’s easy, gives you a little start at first, but their acceptance facilitates your acceptance. His clever manipulation of the different literary strands in his story is masterful. You know they will collide at some point, but Murakami does it subtly, inserting a name here, an incident there. Its inevitability is almost a recognition.
‘According to Checkhov,’ Tamaru said, rising from his chair, ‘once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.’
One of the things I like about Murakami’s style is his light touch. And yet the themes he addresses are often dark, sad and traumatic. He highlights the reality that most people go about their daily business often carrying unresolved emotional burdens. There is no one who is clean. That is reality. And yet, they go on with their lives and fantastical things happen.
Having seen widely differing reactions to 1Q84 which were negative for the most part, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. I took a luxurious stroll through Murakami’s world and didn’t even notice the change in translators from Books 2 to 3. Both Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel did a superb job and there wasn’t even a slight whisper of discord. What was harsh and shocking in the first half of the novel slowly mellows into something warm and precious as you grow to know Aomame and Tengo.
1Q84 has fast become one of my favourite novels by Murakami making me want to re-read Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle just so I can remember just why I fell in love with his writing.