Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s brand of fantasy-realism is polarising and there can’t be any acquired taste about it. You either believe in talking cats and orthogonal cheese or you don’t. However, his latest opus 1Q84 is a far less demanding work of fiction but is as rewarding like Kafka On the Shore, Sputnik Sweetheart, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Set in the last nine months of 1984 in Tokyo, the three-part novel (divided into Book 1, 2 and 3) pivots around two characters: Aomame and Tengo. They have not met for two decades, but each is very much an essence in the other’s memory. Aomame is a sweet, po-faced sports club instructor with a sexual leaning towards balding men who look like Sean Connery and occasionally operates as a Manga-version of Lisbeth Salander who kills men by touching the “sweet spot” on the back of their neck. Tengo is a math instructor at a primary school and writes fiction that is yet to deserve any publishing house’s affections. The title alludes to a parallel world that the characters unwittingly walk into (number 9 is pronounced as kyu in Japanese).
Tengo is involved in the rewriting of a young girl’s novel about a cult, at the behest of his smarmy editor, Komatsu. Not so far away, Aomame is entrusted with the impossibly dangerous task of killing this cult’s leader. Murakami does well to inject a few more characters who propel the novel into the realms of brilliant storytelling. Ushikawa, a lawyer turned private detective, has a major presence in the book 3, and his Sherlock Holmes-kind deductions are an absolute delight. Tamaru, Aomame’s Man Friday, waxes eloquent on topics ranging from Carl Jung’s home in Switzerland to Chekhov’s “gun maxim”.
1Q84 was issued in three volumes to huge acclaim in Japan in 2009-10 and is destined for similar response in rest of the world as well. Right from the opening page, where Aomame is transfixed by Czech composer Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Murakami wears his Western cultural influences on his sleeve. He eschews kimono for jeans, sushi for pizza and hardly mentions sake in this hefty (932 pages to be precise) novel. Here are a few references that should give you an ample idea of what Murakami wants his reader to think about: Faye Dunaway, Duke Ellington, Janacek, Sonny and Cher, Anton Chekhov, Proust, Churchill and George Orwell.
What makes 1Q84 a fierce work of imagination is the scope that Murakami gives to his love story: Lewis Carroll meets Charles Dickens meets Philip Pullman at the same table in a jazz club in Tokyo. The way Aomame makes her way to the parallel world through an innocuous expressway is pure Carroll, Tengo’s deprived childhood could give any Dickens character a run for his money and the way parallel worlds coexist cheek-by-jowl in the novel is straight out of a Pullman book. On top of that, 1Q84 is deeply rooted in the Japanese kaidan eiga tradition and its kabuki theatre ancestry.
The part where Aomame kills the leader has more chills per sentence than the entire shower scene in Psycho and eyeball ripping in Un Chien Andalou together. Despite its size, Murakami makes sure that he weaves his yarn intricately enough to not let the reader’s attention waver. By jettisoning his usual fantasy-realism, Murakami could etch out his characters more finely and have arresting backstories that would make 1Q84 a novel easily suitable to any reader’s palate. Explicit, yet subtle and dreamlike, and more sex than is usual for Murakami, 1Q84 will transcend Murakami’s fan base.
That said, this being a Murakami novel, ordinary events do turn into extraordinary events in no time. Tengo and Aomame can see two moons in the sky, Aomame ties herself up in knots over the colour of the uniform of Tokyo Police, there’s a bizarre impregnating scene, dwarfs called Little People walk out of dead people’s mouth and any Inception fan would revel at how you can never be completely sure which world the story is taking place in. Memory plays an important part in the novel’s structured and exploding proceedings. Both the leads are forever clinging to their past despite the bad taste that it leaves in their mouths. After all, the past is something they can be at least sure of.
If any blemishes are to be picked up from this otherwise flawlessly brilliant novel, it’s the climax that is a tad contrived. The publisher appointed two translators and had them race against the time in order to release the book as soon as possible, which is why the language gets a bit jarring at times. In fact, 1Q84 was nominated for Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award for this clunky line: “A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought.” Despite this I would say that if you have to read only one work of fiction this year, make sure it’s 1Q84.
1Q84: BOOK 1, 2 AND 3
932 pages; Rs 649