-Review by John Ewbank-
I’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami; his novels are haunting, hypnotic, and above all profoundly strange. Murakami’s world is one where cats talk, men dress up as sheep, and the lives of ordinary people can slowly unravel, until they end up stuck at the bottom of a well. Unfortunately, only his most recent novel―1Q84―really qualifies as “apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, or dystopian” (and this may be stretching it a bit) but I’d strongly recommend you check out his back catalogue (maybe start with Norwegian Wood, his most conventional novel and the one made him a superstar in Japan).
The idea of alternative worlds is a common theme in Murakami’s novels, and this is the main focus of 1Q84. Set in Tokyo in 1984, it begins with Aomane, who is stuck in traffic on her way to an important assignment. To avoid being late, she climbs down some emergency stairs to get off a flyover, but in doing so crosses into a different reality, where there are two moons in the sky and the police carry semi-automatic weapons. Aomane calls this new world 1Q84 (“Q” and “9” sound the same in Japanese, and so this is a play on words). The second main protagonist is Tengo, a maths teacher and part-time writer who comes across an unusual novel, apparently written by an equally unusual 17-year old girl – Fuka-Eri. Tengo is persuaded to rewrite the novel and enter it into a competition, which it wins, but he becomes increasingly convinced that the unsettling events it describes may actually have happened. Tengo too crosses over into 1Q84, and as the plot develops, both characters become convinced that they must find each other in order to return to the real world.
The first thing to say is that this is a really long book – 900 pages over three volumes, by far Murakam’s longest – and it’s not exactly action packed; the plot is complex and meandering, with plenty of diversions, and some reviews have described it as “turgid” and “oppressively slow”. For my part I enjoyed it immensely, mainly for the dream-like atmosphere and surreal touches typical of Murakami, and I liked the slow-burning and wandering story. However, its not my favourite of his novels for a couple of reasons.
My main issue was that I wasn’t sure what it was all about. It’s true that in most Murakami novels the deeper meanings are rarely explicit – they tend to be impressionistic rather than X symbolises Y – but after reading his other works I at least felt I had a vague idea of what the symbolism means. In 1Q84 I was completely baffled.
Cults, for example, seemed to be a key feature: a particularly nasty cult is central to the story, and Aomane was raised as a Jehovah ’s Witness. Cults interest Murakami – he interviewed several members of the cult responsible for the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway– but I couldn’t figure out what 1Q84, in all its 900 pages, really had to say about them, apart from that they’re generally pretty bad, which is obvious.
Large parts of the plot were equally baffling: take for example the “Little People”, who come out of people’s mouths while they’re sleeping to build a Chrysalis in mid-air. All well and good in a Murakami novel, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what they were supposed to be. I also couldn’t figure out what 1Q84, given its title, has to do with 1984 by George Orwell. A quick scan of some reviews pointed out that it starts in April (like 1984) and that the Little People may be a nod to Big Brother. But can that be it? He may as well have called it Pride and Prejudice Rebooted and named one of the characters Elizabeth.
So to sum up, this is probably one for the more hardcore Murakami fan – I certainly don’t recommend as a first foray into his books. On the other hand, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything quite like it. And if you read it and it all makes perfect sense then let me know…