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.