Haruki Murakami: 1Q84

Before its English-language release, even, in fact, before the original Japanese books were published, speculation ran rampant about this long novel. What would it be about? What did it have to do with George Orwell’s original work? What was the significance of the “Q”, replacing the nine of the original title?

Haruki Murakami is unquestionably the most well-known Japanese-language writer in the international literary scene. He’s also critically-acclaimed, having collected a litany of high-profile literary awards throughout the world. He’s made odds-makers short lists for the Nobel Prize in Literature the last several years, though he hasn’t won, yet.

1Q84 is a 900-page opus. Originally published in three volumes in Japan, the individual books really don’t stand alone. As with Tolkien’s “trilogy”, it was likely a question of length alone. The English translation has been published as a single volume in both Canada and the United States, by publishers Bond Street Books and Knopf, respectively.

The letter Q and the number 9 in Japanese are homonyms. Said out loud, the title of Murakami’s latest is identical to Orwell’s 1984, when the numbers are pronounced in Japanese. The attractive hardcover also has some unusual typesetting. The book title and page numbers are mirror-reversed on opposite pages. The Q suggests we are in a different world than that imagined by Orwell. The typesetting suggests we are in a different world from our own.

Set in 1984 Tokyo, the novel follows the stories of two apparently unconnected protagonists in alternating chapters. At the novel’s opening, Aomame is a young woman on her way to an important business meeting but is stuck in traffic on the expressway. Dressed smartly and professionally, she nevertheless takes the unorthodox action of leaving her taxi and climbing over the guard rail, climbing down a rickety emergency stairway in order to make her meeting on time. We soon discover why the timing was so important: she’s a professional hit-woman on her way to kill a man.

Tengo, by contrast, is a gentle young man meeting with his editor about an unusual manuscript submission for a literary contest. A part-time math instructor and technically-competent amateur writer, he pushes his editor to consider the unpolished, but compelling story as a finalist. There’s something . . . magical about it. But it will never win, as rough as it is. So his editor, completely disdainful of either convention or ethics, suggests Tengo secretly rewrite the whole thing for the original author, as part of a conspiracy between the three of them.

Tengo doesn’t realize what he is getting himself into with his decision to rewrite the novella, Air Chrysalis. He obtains the permission of its mysterious author, the 17-year-old Fuka-eri, but still feels uneasy. As he learns more about the girl and her history, he begins to suspect that the events of the story may not be entirely fiction.

A ten-year-old girl living in a frightening cult, locked up in an ice-cold shed for 10 days with a dead, blind goat as punishment for some religious transgression — the mysterious Little People who are neither good nor evil, but clearly dangerous — the air chrysalis, whose purpose is unclear: there are hints that these are more than the figments of a teenage girl’s imagination.

But it’s Aomame, who can hardly be said to have an ordinary life to begin with, who is the first to notice that things in the world seem slightly off. She starts noticing odd items in the news, references to both local and global events of the past few years that she can’t believe she wouldn’t have heard of before. A huge shoot-out between Japanese police and an armed radical group with far-reaching policy consequences. A major US-Soviet joint project in space, at the height of the Cold War.

Of course Murakami is known for taking us down the rabbit hole. In the magical realism tradition of Borges, and Kafka before him, the Japanese author’s approach is to simply introduce one inexplicable event after another into his characters’ lives. In fact, down the rabbit hole may not be the right analogy for 1Q84 at all. One can climb back out of a rabbit hole. It’s more like the world itself has been twisted askew — as if somebody turned a crank and reality was irreparably bent into a new shape.

It’s how his characters cope with these situations Murakami throws at them which makes the story. Aomame spends hours going through microfilmed periodicals at the library, sure that the world she lives in has subtly changed from what it was before. But all the newspapers, the history books, even the collective memories of humankind are all consistent with each other, so how can she be sure it wasn’t her own mind which suffered the catastrophic change? Orwell understood the importance of a collective understanding of truth: propaganda and false histories featured heavily in his novel. Unmoored from history, we are helplessly adrift.

Murakami has a tendency to spend pages describing the mundane day-to-day tasks of his characters. But it’s not long-windedness that causes him to describe in detail a trip to the grocery store, or the preparation of miso soup and grilled fish. The mundane in his fiction serves as a counter-point, placing in stark contrast the disequilibrium his characters must contend with as logic is suspended around them.

As in real-life, the emotional and intellectual challenges his characters face are not resolved over hours or days, but months. Close to a year goes by in the course of this novel, and indeed, this timescale is typical of Murakami. Meanwhile, life goes on. Chores must be performed, classes must be taught.

Murakami’s Japanese perspective combined with his deep knowledge and love of Western literature produce a voice that is utterly unique. Though magical realism in the tradition of Borges is a defining part of Murakami’s literary DNA, his plotting takes less from the Argentine writer than Raymond Chandler, master of the hard-boiled detective novel.

Unasked for, Murakami’s characters find themselves embroiled in mysteries as convoluted as Philip Marlowe’s. Their response, a resigned stoicism, is deeply Japanese. But read the author’s translation work for more hints. The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye — caught up in forces beyond their control, you can see Holden Caulfield’s aimless acceptance, Jay Gatsby’s guarded hope. “Fatalism tempered with optimism” is the best one-phrase description I’ve managed to come up with for Murakami’s work.

Is 1Q84 the career-defining masterpiece some were predicting it would be? I don’t feel qualified to say. I think it’s on a par with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Shore, which I consider his strongest works to date. It’s connection to the original 1984 is . . . indirect.

Orwell’s great fear was a trend towards totalitarian government. Murakami focuses, albeit obliquely, on religious cults, a topic he has tackled in his non-fiction (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack). Both types of institution enslave minds. But his intention is probably less a direct indictment of the cult mentality than a reiteration of the larger themes we’ve seen in his previous fiction: societal alienation; existential angst.

If Murakami is warning us about anything, it’s probably the dangers of becoming disconnected from our lives. Both political and religious extremism are, in that view, just symptoms of the problem.

(Bond Street Books, 2011)

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