1Q84 Book One

Having waited four years since Murakami’s last novel, 1Q84’s near one thousand page length seems somehow too much at once: it’s a little like dieting for a year and then attempting to devour the contents of a baker’s window in one afternoon. I’ve therefore decided to take its division into three books at face value and read them separately, one a month, over the next three months. This will still allow me to be completed comfortably before his original Japanese audience: although Books One and Two were published simultaneously in Japan (in May 2009), there was then almost a year’s wait for Book Three. Its length, and the two and half year anticipation between publication in Japan and in English, were not the only reasons that made 1Q84 probably the most eagerly expected (translated) novel of 2011. There was also a sense that Murakami’s powers as a writer were on the wane, and that this ambitious undertaking would provide proof one way or the other.

Unlike most of Murakami’s work, 1Q84 is not written in the first person, and in fact adopts two perspectives in alternating chapters. In chapter 1 we are introduced to Aomame, a young woman on her way to work assignment who has become stuck in a traffic jam. She leaves the taxi and uses an emergency stairway to escape the motorway. It is at this point she enters the alternative reality of 1Q84 (the novel is set in 1984). The first indication of this is a passing policeman:

“Aomame noticed that there was something unusual about his uniform…His pistol too was a different model. He wore a large automatic at his waist instead of the revolver normally issued to policemen in Japan.”

Later investigation will show that this change resulted from a shoot-out between police and a radical sect at Lake Motosu which Aomame has no memory of. However, before this we will have seen Aomame kill a man she has never met before: her ‘work’, we discover, involves tracking down and murdering men who have been abusive to their wives, at the behest of a wealthy dowager. As Aomame’s back story unfolds we find that she has a personal motivation, her best friend having committed suicide after years of mistreatment at the hands of her husband.

The second narrative focuses on Tengo, an aspiring writer and Maths tutor, who becomes embroiled in a scheme of his publisher to cause a literary sensation by rewriting a story which a teenage girl, Fuka-Eri, has sent to him:

“This Fuka-Eri girl has something special. Anyone can see it reading Air Chrysalis. Her imagination is far from ordinary. Unfortunately, though, her writing is hopeless. A total mess. You, on the other hand, know how to write.”

Fuka-Eri is the daughter of the cult leader linked to the Lake Motosu Incident, although that particular group had splintered from the main sect. Her father, Fukada, hasn’t been seen in years and Fuka-Eri has been living with an elderly Professor and his daughter. It is increasingly suggested that Fuka Eri’s extraordinary imagination is instead a factual rendering of events in her own life, in particular the sinister ‘Little People’. When a ten year old girl who has escaped from Fukada’s commune is taken in to the dowager’s shelter for abused women (the girl has been raped), she also mentions the ‘Little People’, and though the phrase is hardly heart-stopping in English, the scene where they finally appear is:

“Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People.”

Murakami’s two great strengths come into focus here: his ability to create fictional worlds, and then to inject fantastic elements into them without losing credibility. 1Q84 might be seen as representative of this: there is little difference between it and 1984, but it is different. Similarly, Murakami takes reality and twists it slightly; it feels real but we are always aware of its difference.

By the end of Book One, we can see the links between the two narratives. An important connection is clearly Fukada’s commune, and Murakami has been interested in cults at least since he wrote Underground about the Tokyo gas attack. Tengo and Aomame are also connected through a childhood memory. Tengo remembers Aomame as a lonely classmate, isolated by her religious upbringing; they never talk but on one occasion he protects her from some childish bullying. Shortly after this happens:

“She strode quickly across the room, heading straight for Tengo, as if she had just made up her mind about something. She stood next to him and, without the slightest hesitation, grabbed his hand and looked up at him.”

Aomame also remembers the incident:

“I did have one person I fell in love with…It happened when I was ten. I held his hand.”

Murakami has used this rather sentimental image before to suggest some kind of spiritual bond, and here he contrasts it with a series of casual sexual relationships – Tengo’s with a married woman, Aomame’s with men she picks up in bars. However, a little like Dickens (though Murakami is not such a stylist), despite the implausibility and the sentimentality, the power of the narrative is difficult to resist.

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3 Responses to “1Q84 Book One”

  1. Justine Says:

    I am excitedly anticipating reading this one!! Can’t wait to hear your impressions!

  2. Debby Says:

    I’ve just read books 1 and 2 and enjoyed the way Murakami gradually lets you work out what the link must be. I looked at the nearly full moon the other night and just for a moment felt a prickle up my spine as I wondered what the second one would look like.
    I look forward to your impressions of Books 2 and 3.

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