1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Monday, 14 November 2011


Two weeks ago, I was sent a copy of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for review from Random House Australia. I have to confess my sheer astonishment when I opened the package to reveal a huge book, over 900 pages long. This is a book that cannot elicit a “complete” review. It seems to open up multiple forms of interpretation, any one of which can be used to analyse it. I don’t aim to comprehensively tackle every line of thought 1Q84 suggests in its pages. Rather, I want to focus on those aspects that stood out the most for me as I was reading it. But be warned, this will be a long review.

1Q84 is a novel that is grounded in magical realism where fantasy and reality collide, and where you simply have to accept the unbelievable in order to invest in the narrative. It would be misleading though to call it a science fiction or fantasy novel, because it is very much steeped in the tradition of realist fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it incorporates fantastic elements and creates its own logic. If you want to enjoy this book, you simply have to accept such elements as “reality”. 1Q84 was originally published as three separate volumes in Japan, and the full 925 page compilation of these volumes in English does seem to suffer from repetition when they are read as one. But this hardly seems worthy of criticism. In fact, I found the repetitive elements of 1Q84 almost necessary to the logic of its complex narrative, and there were aspects of its structure that reminded me of poetic refrains, repeated at intervals to create meaning through symbolic layers of language.

Similarly, another aspect of the novel that some critics have found problematic is its refusal to neatly explain the strange world it creates. I think many critics expected Murakami to offer an individual philosophy behind his world. This ignores the spirit of 1Q84, which is an open-ended book, not an Agatha Christie novel where everything is tied up with a pretty explanatory bow at the end (although I love Christie novels too).

Set in 1984 Japan, 1Q84 is told from the point-of-view of multiple primary characters: Aomame, Tengo and Ushikawa. Other significant characters include Komatsu and Fuka-Eri. The story revolves around a novel written by the 17-year-old Fuka-Eri, called Air Chrysalis. Komatsu, an editor, enlists Tengo, a writer and maths teacher, to rewrite Air Chrysalis so it can win a literary competition. The book eventually does win and becomes a best-seller. The story of Air Chrysalis is a strange one filled with “little people” who seemingly have enormous power. As the novel progresses, we learn that Air Chrysalis is not “fiction” but “reality”, and that Fuka-Eri is the daughter of the leader of a religious cult called Sakigake, controlled by the “little people”. Aomame is sent to kill the leader, while Ushikawa is a lawyer hired by Sakigake to track her down after she has done so.

In the midst of this drama is Tengo and Aomame’s own story: a romance that is experienced via separation, loneliness and loss, stretching from childhood to adulthood. Tengo and Aomame are linked by an invisible, seemingly magical bond, and spend much of the novel separated, unaware that they are each seeking the other. They are drawn into the strange world of the “little people” in which the sky has two moons and the year is no longer 1984 but 1Q84, with the “Q” representing a question. As the leader of Sakigake tells Aomame, the world of 1Q84 “is not a parallel world” (p. 462). 1Q84 is essentially reality mediated by fiction. There are many ways to interpret this, but I want to follow one particular line of thought: I want to consider this whole novel as an experiment in the function and role of literature and language.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

As the title of 1Q84 suggests, the novel reworks George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is an allegory for Stalinism. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is referred to numerous times in Murakami’s novel, and one of the most interesting references is this one by Tengo:

In his novel, George Orwell depicted the future as a dark society dominated by totalitarianism. People are rigidly controlled by a dictator named Big Brother. Information is restricted, and history is constantly being rewritten. The protagonist works in a government office, and I’m pretty sure his job is to rewrite words. Whenever a new history is written, the old histories all have to be thrown out. In the process, words are remade, and the meaning of current words are changed. (p. 257)

It’s highly ironic for Tengo to be saying these words, as he rewrites Fuka-Eri’s “truth” as “fiction” for public consumption. One of the startling things for me about 1Q84 is its hyper-sensitivity to the power of words. This passage highlights what is explored throughout the entire novel: the way that words mediate and help to construct reality. Fiction is never just pure fiction, it is an interpretation, an engagement with and reordering of the world of flesh and blood, life and death. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four shows his reader what can happen when words are manipulated in the name of control, violence and fascism. But his futuristic dystopia is rewritten in 1Q84 as a far more complex exploration of the role of language.

Literature as a life-force:

One of the reasons why I think Murakami brings the function of language under a microscope is to present literature as a life-force: as something that connects, enlivens and reconciles us with the randomness of life. One of the characters in the novel, Tamaru, reveals to Aomame that people need “mental landscapes that have meaning for them” in order “to go on living” (p. 516). Against the loneliness, fragmentation and random cruelty experienced by many of the characters in 1Q84, Murakami presents Tengo’s fiction as a force that connects flesh with flesh, and sinks into the marrow of our being like a comforting ally in life.

There came a certain point where I simply became convinced that the entire world of 1Q84 is the product of Tengo’s imagination as a writer. Indeed, Aomame often notes that she feels like a character in someone else’s story. I couldn’t help wondering if Tengo made her up in order to compensate for his own loneliness in life. This is one way to read 1Q84, and it is a way that shows us literature’s role in creating “mental landscapes” that help us “go on living” and feel connected. In other words, perhaps Tengo’s writing, like Murakami’s own writing, simply wish to show us, in Aomame’s words, that “I am not alone” (p. 856). Isn’t that one of the most essential functions of literature - to show us we aren’t alone?

The ideal reader:

Aomame may feel like Tengo’s fictional character, but she also asserts: “This might be Tengo’s story, she thought, but it’s my story, too” (p. 855). To me, Aomame here becomes the prototype for the ideal reader: someone who receives fiction with the spirit of invention and dialogue. The reason it’s impossible to pin down 1Q84 to a singular interpretation is because its meaning lies in its reception. So with that in mind, I urge you to pick up a copy and truly lose yourself in Murakami’s intricate world. After all, its meaning ultimately lies in your own hands.

I would really love to hear what you thought of 1Q84, if you’ve read it.


Amelia said...

I've read it, albeit only the first two volumes and I have to agree with everything you've just said. In terms of style, I found this a very typical Murakami book. What I found interesting was the 'cult' part of the book. I think he was clearly influenced by the interviews he did for Underground.

Spot on review (according to the 2-volume reader though).

Monica said...

thanks hila.

I only skimmed your review (I'm one of those people that thrusts their hands up to their ears when you start chatting about a film/book I've yet to meet) but I got the gist of it.

I've yet to read Murakami and find it a big gap as so many bloggers mention him. I hadn't realised this one was so fantastical. I enjoy magic-realism so that would be fine by me.

odessa said...

hila, wow...you finished it already! i haven't started reading so i just skimmed over your review. looking forward to reading it, when i have time. unfortunately, i'm deep in the middle of memorizing/conjugating japanese verbs and adjectives for our finals and i'm not doing too well.

i do feel like studying japanese is making it easier for me to delve into murakami's writing, even more so than before. their language is very systematic and yet very subjective and nuanced. for instance, there's different forms of speech if you're talking to a friend or a superior..or there's different levels of "politeness". i'm not exactly sure how to explain it but the language has different meanings depending on how you interpret it and yet it still means one and the same. (i think i will stop now before i confuse myself or you).

anyways, i will go back to this post when i finish reading the book and let you know my thoughts. thank you for this! :)

Petra said...

I love Murakami. I would read everything and anything by him, even his shopping lists, no reviews needed, but thank you anyways :)

I'm afraid I have to wait a little before I'll be able to read this one. but your words def made it move up higher on my have-to-read-asap list!

B said...

It truly sounds like a fascinating book. An author worth looking into, I think. I really do love books that you have to delve into, so long as I have the sufficient time to give them the attention they deserve. This is going on my Books to Read list.

Ana said...

Perfect. I've been wanting to read a Murakami book from a long time now. 1Q84 sounds like a good option then! :)

Jane Flanagan said...

I'm looking forward to reading this. Always interested in your thoughts - thanks for sharing!

andrea despot said...

This is a review I'll be bookmarking so I can read it after I've read the book myself. Haruki Marukami is one of my absolute favorite authors and I'm so excited for this! By the way, do you have a favorite of his? Mine is Sputnik Sweetheart - it's one of the few books I've read more than once and I'm pretty sure I could read it again and again.

Sam said...

One of my very favorite things about Murakami is his use of allusion. The way he talks about Gatsby in Norweigen Wood creates an instant bond of understanding between the reader and the main character. It reminds us of something we've already felt - both within ourselves and seeing it reflected in a book.

The way you expressed this in your paragraphs about the Transormative Power of Literature is so poignant, Hila!

Though, I am a little intimidated by the size of this book.

amy said...

i haven't read it, but i did just finish norwegian wood. :)

Niina said...

I have read only one Murakami book but I have been thinking of reading this one next. But I am afraid it will take long time to finish because I am not a quick reader.

naomemandeflores said...

I'll have to go back to this review as soon as I finish the book Hila!

Camila Faria

gracia said...

Will be dipping into "where fantasy and reality collide" in the quiet days of summer, Hila, and will let you know.

hila said...

amelia: thanks amelia, I wondered if my review was a bit too subjective, so I'm grateful for this validation of my analysis.

monica, petra, b., ana, jane, amy, camila, gracia: I hope you'll let me know what you think of the book once you've read it!

odessa: Hebrew is like that too - I pity anyone who has to learn it for the first time.

andrea: I think this book is becoming my favourite of his, it's just so damn impressive.

sam: don't be intimidated by it's size, it's very readable and easy to get into. I love that about his writing too - he uses similar allusions to Chekhov and Orwell throughout 1Q84.

niina: I think this is a pretty easy book to read in terms of language, and it also draws you in (you have to know what happens next), so the book size isn't that much of a problem. I'd give it a go, even if you're not a fast reader. It doesn't really matter how long it'll take you to read it anyway, as long as you enjoy it :)

Maša said...

I can't wait to read it! I'll read your review afterwards ... I never read reviews before watching or reading something, I'm just too afraid to have a different view then ...

hila said...

masa: I hope you enjoy it!

yelena bryksenkova said...

like many of the commenters above, i am also saving this review for when i read the book. i've heard many criticisms about murakami's ambiguous endings, or even his "darkness." he is my absolute favorite writer in the world and the way he deals with the concept of loss is so beautiful; that ambiguity is what makes it perfection. i read and re-read his books, and i learn to think about / deal with difficult things in life in a certain way because of what he's taught me in his calm, jazzy way.


Sundari said...

I finally have time to read blogs again. I still haven't bought my copy of IQ84 and I am dying to read it. It really sounds like an epic Murakami tale of collisions between reality and fantasy, and between fate and chance. It's interesting what you said about not being alone, I must agree that we do write/create/make things to show we aren't alone and also to be remembered. It's so beautiful to think about. Great review as always.

hila said...

sundari: thanks! I'd love to know what you think about it when you get the chance to read it - I know you're a huge Murakami fan.

Maša said...

oh, I want to ask you something: do you know of any writers that have a similar style as murakami (bizarre, dark, fantastic ...)? I asked a few bookworms already but they all said they couldn't think of anyone. or maybe I should rephrase my question: if murakami is one of my favorite writers, which authors should I also check out? :)

btw, I love that you reply to comments. I usually don't feel like commenting (or even to continue following a certain blog) because I don't feel any connection. I had a similar blog as you have in Slovenian. I would love to have that kind of blog in English but my vocabulary is too limited to express myself fully.

hila said...

yelena: I like ambiguity in books because it allows me to use my own imagination. I have a feeling you'll like this one yelena.

masa: oh thanks! I honestly don't see the point of allowing comments if you don't interact with them - that's what makes blogging meaningful. Your English is just fine :)

as for other authors: oh gosh, that's a tough one. If you're looking for magical realism types of books, I'd obviously check out Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende. But as for contemporary authors who explore similar existential/literary themes, I'd suggest Gail Jones, Andrei Makine, Jeffrey Eugenides, and many, many more! You might like to give Kafka a go too.

hila said...

oh, and I would also check out the works of Angela Carter too, Masa.

happy reading!

Maša said...

I agree with the point of comments. thanks so much for your suggestions, I would love to find more fantastic worlds! reading (and commenting on blogs :P) improves my English. :) I haven't read anything by these authors yet (except kafka).

hila said...

my pleasure masa!

Maša said...

I finished reading the book in March. I like your review and I wouldn't have much to add. I'm actually searching for the moon more often than I was before! the book maybe isn't my favorite by Murakami, but I enjoyed the reading process very much. I found interesting the part when Tengo was reading book reviews. it seemed as Murakami knew in advance what kind of reviews he is going to receive and he wanted to highlight that it was his purpose not to clarify everything.

Jennifer Armstrong said...

I recently finished reading this book after hearing about it through your blog and loved it.
I wanted to make a quirky sort of note. The number nine is kyuu in Japanese, said like the letter Q. Japanese number conventions are a little different, but supposing the characters abide by them 1Q84 would sound the same as 1984. It made me wonder what other little word plays Murakami hid throughout the original text.

Hila said...

Masa: I thought that part with Tengo reading reviews was also a nod to Murakami's own reviewers - and he was spot on.

Jennifer: That's so interesting! There's so much wordplay in this book, which requires a playful reader.