There’s nothing like finding a huge hardback book from an author you love in your Christmas stocking. Sadly, for me, it was Book 3 of 1Q84, so I had to traipse out and purchase my own doorstop copy of the first two books.
It’s worth noting that Jay Rubin was the translator for this one, whom I prefer to Alfred Birnbaum for his slightly more pared-down style. For a book that’s talking about two damaged people, treading a line between the farcical, the fantastic and the horrific, the slightly anaesthetised narration is particularly useful for that, although I know some readers can find it grates after a while. Some more interesting discussion about the nuances of translation can be found on Murakami’s English-language website, here.
Aomame (‘Green peas’ in Japanese) is a woman with an important appointment. In her hurry to make it, she takes a taxi driver’s advice to climb down an expressway service stairway, and in doing so crosses into this eerie new world that is the same, but different. We soon discover that she was headed for a very unconventional meeting, and she has a surprising (or maybe not so surprising, depending on what kind of novel you’re in) line of work.
Meanwhile, Tengo is the more familiar Murakami protagonist – a young 30ish professional with a mundane job as a cram school maths instructor, a lot of free time, and a solitary disposition. I do sometimes despair of the ease with which Murakami’s leading men manage to live in nice apartments, pop out to bars and only work 3 days a week – surely if it were that easy, we’d all be doing it – but their means do always seem to be justified in the text. Just. During this bountiful downtime, Tengo is a budding novelist. His editor enlists him to rewrite a flawed but incredibly compelling story by a Fuka-Eri, a mysterious teenage girl. It is a modern folk tale about ‘Little people’ who come from another world, who speak to her community, and who have a sinister power. Drawn to the story despite himself, Tengo ghostwrites it into a bestseller, and in doing so, binds his fate to that of Fuka-Eri.
Both Aomame and Tengo find themselves in a reality that is not quite their own but then, we find that their lives were never really what we’d call normal. Linked by a childhood experience and connection, they have to find a way to find one another if they are ever going to make it out of 1Q84.
“Please, Miss Aomame,” the man said. Then he released a brief sigh. “There is nothing in this world that never takes a step outside a person’s heart. And it just so happens – should I say? – that Tengo Kawana has become a figure of no little significance to us at the moment.”
Aomame was at a loss for words.
The man said, “But then chance has nothing to do with it. Your two fates did not cross through mere happenstance. The two of you set foot in this world because you were meant to enter it. And now that you have entered it, like it or not, each of you will be assigned your proper role here.”
“Set foot in this world?”
“Yes, in this year of 1Q84.”
In many ways, this (these) is (are) a typical Murakami novel. He is fascinated by splits, and you see duality everywhere in his work. Here, it is the world that has split in two – 1984 is replaced by 1Q84, a parallel world that is almost exactly identical, but with two moons. People, too, are divided – into maza and dohta, but it isn’t as simple as giving somebody a double and trying to make a semi-profound statement about light and dark sides. In earlier Murakami novels, as here, these are two halves that don’t necessarily make a whole – connectedness doesn’t mean completion.
For somebody who wants an introduction to Murakami, I would recommend starting with either Kafka on the Shore or Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I feel like they have more obvious, imaginative points to be made, but also answer more of the questions that they establish. There are a lot of plot devices in 1Q84 that are never answered, avenues that are never followed. This is something that I quite like in a way – we avoid this idea of ‘Chekov’s gun’ (that anything included in the novel must be relevant or useful, or ‘answered’ somehow) and even some startlingly original ideas remain undeveloped or unresolved – but it can also feel frustrating. IQ84 to me felt like more variations on a theme – a theme that I love, but one which is more of an aficionado’s indulgence than a new avenue or world to explore.