I first spotted Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 near the cashier at Coles in Commerce Court concourse (Toronto) and made the natural association between the novel’s title and George Orwell’s 1984. Who doesn’t love the utterly creepy world of 1984? 1Q84 had big shoes to fill by making allusion to that dystopian heavyweight and started towards filling those shoes being a hefty 928 pages. I wasn’t carrying this tome around – oh no, I read it entirely on my phone.
Books 1 and 2 were published in 2009 and the final and third volume was published in 2010. The English translation was published in the end of 2011 wherein all three volumes were published together. My head was in the sand as it stands regarding literary events but apparently the English-language publication was the most anticipated literary event of the (2011) year. I only noticed the novel one year later due to its prominent placement at the bookstore and the Japanese author.
I started reading 1Q84 after Christmas last year and found it a little difficult to get into. We are first introduced to Aomame, cold-blooded assassin of terrible men whom she believes have it coming to them and her sad and lonely past are slowly revealed; Tengo is a tutor-writer who, at the bidding of his editor, is rewriting the contest submission for a mysterious high school-aged girl and literary newcomer, Fuka-Eri.
Seventeen-year-old Fuka-Eri – which is hip for Eriko Fukada – is one odd character with some characteristics of being a savant. From all descriptions, she is eerily beautiful and has lovely breasts that makes one worried that 30-year-old Tengo will do something improper. (Oh, he does.) What drove me a little nuts was how perfectly ethereal Fuka-Eri was and how she had the accurate sixth sense that was awfully convenient to share information to Tengo. Also, her speaking in riddles was simply lovely and artistic. As a reader, I can try to surmise that her non-standard upbringing in a cult environment on a commune lends her a different world view. I wish there was more treatment of this, or even if we knew she just “snapped out of it” after her role had been fulfilled.
It is Aomame who first observes the shift in her/the world with a change in police issued equipment that she cannot recall from her daily scouring of the news and she identifies and concludes the shift occurring when she took a certain exit off the highway. She even names the strange world 1Q84: she’s shifted into a different 1984 but carries on life as usual. Tengo, working like a nut on re-writing the novel and then dealing with the press, does not observe the difference.
The novel, Air Chrysalis, has a surreal quality that can only come from it being dictated by a cult-raised girl who is dyslexic and has only listen to books being read to her. It is also a book I wouldn’t read, delving into the fantasy world with a passage like this, “When the Little People finish making the air chrysalis, there are two moons. The girl looks up to find two moons in the sky.”
Aomame’s story gets interesting as she meets a policewoman who, if she allowed her, can fill the void of her best friend who committed suicide to escape her abusive husband. All the evidence points to Aomame being a lonely person although she would swear she is “alone, but not lonely” – a consequence of her religious upbringing and line of work. Aomame is the first to observe the two moons foretold in Air Chrysalis and worlds truly collide when her next assignment is to eliminate the leader of the cult, Leader. But for all her preparation to do battle if a problem arises during her mission, instead they talk and Leader explains in riddles the mysterious ailment that paralyzes him, how he is not technically a grotesque pervert raping pre-menstrual girls (the reason why he is targeted by Aomame’s organization) and persuading Aomame to end his suffering to tip the balance for humankind in the battle against the Little People and to guarantee Tengo’s safety.
So, Aomame and Tengo remember each other for twenty years hence since that afternoon when they were both ten and she reached out and squeezed his hand and stared at something outside and then ran away. Neither Aomame nor Tengo have had meaningful relationships in the intervening time although they definitely have healthy sexual appetites. First we learn that Aomame has been pining for someone (Tengo) then we learn that Tengo can’t shake the memory of ten-year-old Aomame.
I started to see a connection to 1984, perhaps that the Little People are as innocuous and evil as Big Brother. And that leadership is passed from Leader to Tengo, which throws a wrench into Aomame’s desire since she left organized religion and Tengo will henceforth
not have intercourse with pre-pubescent girls. Or I thought Tengo and Aomame would have do battle against the Little People. But no, it meandered towards a love story and I did fall for the thrilling aspect as to whether or not they will be able to jump back into 1984 in time, with the cult in persuit.
While Books 1 and 2 were from Tengo and Aomame’s perspective, Book 3 provided the perspective of grotesquely ugly but highly skilled private investigator Ushikawa. He is able to make connections between Tengo and Aomame that others have missed, fill in the blanks and provide some comic relief. It was comical to read how ugly he was to scare small children, it was even more fun and drew my empathy to follow his lines of deduction, to feel smarter than he is when he battles the haze that is his middle-aged collection of memories to find the nugget of information he needs. I’m not really sure what purpose he really filled.
Apparently it is common in Harukami’s work for there to be pop culture references and the one I picked up from being somewhat bludgeoned over the head with was the symphony piece that Aomame hears and discusses with the driver during her fateful cab ride. It is Janacek’s Sinfonetta and is Aomame’s work-out music, the piece Tengo played on timpani and is referenced a few others times. I didn’t like the heavy brass opening, preferring the woodwinds and strings. Still, thank you Harukami for expanding my horizons.
While Aomame calls the alternate world 1Q84, the term on Tengo’s end is “cat town” and there is an accompanying creepy story that is part of the superb excerpt from the novel in the The New Yorker ahead of the novel’s English-language publication. After reading the cat town story, I wanted to read more about it, learn about the original supposedly German story to find out that it was entirely made up by Harukami. That was a really great story.
While it’s a milestone for me to read such a long novel (at a time when I shouldn’ thave time to read!), I come away a little dissatisfied. Instead of a novel truly exploring a different world or cults, it was a tenuous love story. I think that because of Aomame and Tengo’s deep and spiritual attraction all intervening interactions are erased when they find each other, that you can have real life for twenty years but it’s a fairy tale thereafter.
It is frustrating because I wanted more explanation of everything that occuried rather than a sideways explanation of fate and Little People invovlement. The actions and meaning of the Little People and their Air Chrysalis seemed left up in the air to me. What happened to Fuki-Eri? What was the point of nurse Kumi Adachi other than to be weird and speak in riddles on that night she and Tengo were together? Was there anything more to Tengo’s father than a miserable but oddly NHK passionate man – was he really Tengo’s father and did he go about as the ghostly NHK collector appearing to Fuki-Eri, Aomame and Ushikawa on behalf of Tengo? What really happened to Tengo’s older girlfriend who was “irretrievably lost” and I think he owes her an explanation and an apology!
Otherwise, the translation by Jay Rubin had a richness that I haven’t experienced in other translations and I enjoyed the novel like a rollercoaster with high and low points.