Book Reviews

1Q84 – Book 1 * Haruki Murakami

“[1Q84] gets off to a vintage Murakami start: eerie wrinkles in an otherwise ordinary Tokyo day. A woman stuck in traffic decides to get out and walk. A struggling novelist is roped into a shady writing project. But with every page, the ready edges closer to an Orwellian rabbit hole. And when the plunge comes, it brings all the trippy delights of Murakami’s unsettling imagination: a vanishing, a parallel world with two moons, and ‘Little People’ who make Big Brother look like an oaf.”
—Devin Gordon, GQ

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo.

The protagonists find their entrances, in different ways. Thirty-year old Aomame is grid-locked in a cab at the book’s opening, on an elevated section of the Tokyo Expressway. She’s listening to Janácek’s Sinfonietta on the car’s stereo and daydreaming about how that particular piece of music, written in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, represented the ultimate calm before the storm, a brief peaceful respite in central Europe that served to prove “the most important proposition in history: ‘At the time, no one knew what was coming.'”

Aomame too, has no idea what lies in store, but her looking-glass world is about to be revealed. Her driver advises her that if she is to make the very important date for which she is late, she might use an emergency iron stair off the high carriageway that will take her down to ground level. But beware, he suggests, “things might look different to you down there”. He’s not wrong.

She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

Aomame’s strangely passive life, in which she administers death to her victims with a single sterile needle applied to a point at the base of the brain, is only given purpose, we come to learn, by the memory of a single act of affection. As a 10-year-old, bullied and ignored by her schoolmates, she once held the hand of a boy in her class, and though circumstances dictated that she hasn’t seen the boy in the 20 years since, that moment of innocent intimacy has sustained her forever. That boy, Tengo, through whose eyes the alternating chapters are told, is now a part-time maths teacher and failing novelist, and happily he shares that memory of Aomame, though he has no idea what has become of her, and how fate (or fiction) might reunite them.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.

A big sprawling novel [that] achieves what is perhaps the primary function of literature: to reimagine, to reframe, the world . . . At the center of [1Q84’s] reality . . . is the question of love, of how we find it and how we hold it, and the small fragile connections that sustain us, even (or especially) despite the odds . . . This is a major development in Murakami’s writing . . . A vision, and an act of the imagination.”
—David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

What I loved most about the first book (still reading book 2 at the moment) was the delicate balance in the two main character’s internal thought process. They both have been traumatized at a young age by an event they can’t forget.

Aomame has been living within a family of Witnesses (she calls it a cult as no religion who refuses to save a life via a blood donation can be called anything else) and she hated how she was ostracized by the other children in the school for it. Always the outsider, she has trouble forming connections with other people – this resulting in one night stands and murdering deserving criminals. When at one point she receives 30,000 yen for a “taxi fare” after a sexy night out, she is debating the thin line between casually picking up guys for sex in a bar and prostitution.
I think the only “normal” relation she can have is with a dowager running a house for abused women and children.

Tengo has been traumatized by an image burnt into his brain in infancy – the sight of another man sucking on his mom’s breast. This shaped him as a person – his older girlfriend, his lack of decision making (even in sex), the way that other people seem to move him about in life like a big and hulking puppet. He even starts thinking that maybe it’s a made up memory, that there is no way he can remember such an early memory – that it was caused by his desire to feel no connection with his dad, to feel that he was someone else’s son. He finds refuge in writing and mathematics – a clear way of organizing the disorganized universe.

In some senses IQ84 is a distinctly Japanese response to Orwellian themes of unseen power and subjugation of the individual (the novel is set in 1984; the Q is a visual pun on the Japanese character 9 that is, somewhat fittingly, lost in translation). We have the Big Brother, watching the commune’s moves and the “little people” who crawled out a sleeping girl’s mouth../

The more disturbing and authoritarian elements of the world Murakami describes can seemingly be traced back to a commune or cult, which, a generation on, affects the lives of his characters in oblique and submerged ways. Tengo discovers some of the implications of it through the words of a 17-year-old girl called Fuka-Eri, who has written a strange confessional memoir of her former brainwashed life, paranoid about the ubiquitous “Little People” and in thrall to a shadowy “Leader”. Tengo, initially intrigued and seduced by Fuka-Eri’s weird coldness, reluctantly finds himself taking on the job of rewriting her book, and his version of Fuka-Eri’s memoir becomes a literary sensation in Japan.

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