Posts Tagged ‘1q84’

1Q84 Book Three

September 1, 2012

Although Haruki Murakami is one of the favourites for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, there is a feeling that, had 1Q84 been the magnum opus that we all hoped, he would be a certainty. Many of the reasons why this three-book, thousand-page epic is not a masterpiece can be clearly seen in the third and final book. Even its existence might be questioned as at times it reads like an extended addendum to the first two books, adding little that is meaningful in either plot or characterisation.

Its main purpose seems to be to bring together the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame (this is not a ‘spoiler’ as the contents page makes it clear that the two narratives unite at the end). It will be no surprise, then, that Aomame, who we left contemplating suicide at the end of Book Two, does not go through with it but instead goes onto hiding from the religious cult Sakigake having killed their Leader. Tengo, meanwhile, is at the bedside of his comatose father. This makes for a rather static novel: Aomame spends most of it unable to leave the flat where she has been secreted, the action limited to a few phone conversations; Tengo spends most of his time in a hospital room, occasionally interacting with the nurses. A third narrative is added, that of Ushikawa, a private detective who has been hired by Sakigake to track down Aomame. This clearly provides some dramatic tension (though Ushikawa is soon stuck in a room too, watching Tengo’s apartment) but this is dissipated by the fact that almost all that Ushikawe discovers the reader already knows.

Book Three is also guilty of the under-development that was evident in the first two books. Murakami frequently drops inspired images or events into the narrative, but then seems unwilling to go very far with them. A perfect example would be the world of 1Q84 itself: apart from the two moons (an effective shorthand for a different world that has been used in countless science fiction films), there is little attempt to differentiate 1Q84 from 1984, even though it is made clear in the opening volume that the history of the two worlds is not the same. In Book Three Murakami introduces a mysterious, threatening NHK (television subscription) collector:

“You can’t escape, Miss Takai. As long as you get the TV signal I will be back. I’m not the kind of man who gives up easily. That’s just my personality.”

With so many characters in hiding, the relentless knocking at the door is one of the most effective elements of the novel, appearing at Aomame’s door, and at Fuka-Eri’s when she is staying in Tengo’s apartment. However, it’s an element that removes itself as suddenly as it appeared with a suggestion that it is somehow linked to Tengo’s comatose father who was a NHK collector. Similarly, there is a hint that one of the nurses Tengo befriends is linked to his murdered mother:

“What I remember is the moment I died. Someone was strangling me. A man I’d never seen before.”

(His mother’s death is one of the few things which Ushikawe discovers that was not already known from the previous volumes). After making this comment, however, the nurse does not reappear. Even Fuka-Eri, so central to Books One and Two, seems to simply to fade away.

Book Three also contains some less than sparkling prose:

“It was like his head was filled with frozen lettuce. There must be some people who don’t know you’re not supposed to freeze lettuce. Once lettuce has been frozen, it loses all its crispness – which for lettuce is surely its best characteristic.”

However, even when the writing deteriorates to a lengthy explanation of a weak simile, there is something almost hypnotic about Murakami’s style – he draws you through the banality because you know some wonder will appear eventually. Overall 1Q84 suffers from indulgence, and book Three is the most indulgent, but it still contains moments of great writing and he shouldn’t be denied the greatest prize of all.

1Q84 Book One

February 11, 2012

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.