Translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin (books 1 & 2) and Philip Gabriel (book 3).
I’ve been a little quiet on here recently because it’s taken me about a week and a half to read this beast of a book. 1Q84 (‘9′ in Japanese is pronounced ‘ku’) is a book in three books with chapters that alternate between Tengo, a cram school maths teacher and writer, and Aomame, a fitness instructor and part-time assassin. In the third book, there are also chapters from Ushikawa, an ugly private detective.
This is Murakami weirdness. It’s the kind of book I can’t really explain succinctly but I will do my best! Tengo is asked by his editor friend to ghost-write a book called Air Chrysalis, submitted by 17-year-old Fuka-Eri, in order to submit it to a prestigious writing competition as the story lacks the style to support the substance. Unsure, Tengo goes along with it, but gets pulled into something much more than simply writing. Meanwhile, Aomame, when not working as a fitness instructor, assassinates men who have been abusing women. She is given her assignments by a wealthy dowager, who asks her to do one final, but most dangerous, kill. Aomame also gradually realises that when she climbed down an emergency stairway to escape traffic, she has stepped into a new world where things are subtly, but significantly, different. Tengo and Aomame’s stories intertwine, and alongside and within all of this there’s a secretive cult, Little People with tremendous power climbing out a goat’s mouth, two moons, and, because it’s Murakami, cats, food, breasts and classical music. It’s a book about fact and fiction, and trying to tease apart the two – although, as the taxi driver in the very first chapter says, “…don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
Though it’s written as three books, it didn’t read like a trilogy to me. Books one and two are often bound in one volume, and it did feel like they were one book (complete with cliffhanger ending), as the end of book one just felt like the end of any other chapter. Book three, on the other hand, read like it was a separate book. Book three has a different tone, partly due to the introduction of Ushikawa’s ‘lone detective’ chapters. Although it has a different translator to the first two, I didn’t notice any particular differences in language, which is interesting in itself as so many translators talk about translation as almost co-construction.
More happens in book three, but it felt slower-paced, as though Murakami was leaving the moment Tengo and Aomame would inevitably meet as long as possible. Perhaps it was to make the reader think it would never happen, that they would get just so close but pass each other by, but I never felt that kind of doubt. I also wasn’t sure about the introduction of Ushikawa’s perspective and enjoyed his chapters the least. As the reader, you know the answers he is looking for, and the chapters feel kind of stereotypically private detective – a person on the fringes, rejected by society, kind of seedy and not worrying about the kind of person/people he works for. Most of the characters in 1Q84 are on the fringes, sometimes in secret, but in more interesting, nuanced ways. Murakami likes repetition in the sense of showing the same thing from different angles, but Ushikawa felt a layer too far and a bit unnecessary.
The ending is tied up in one sense, but there are many threads left dangling, and you get the impression that the world of 1Q84, outside of Tengo and Aomame, will continue without you. I know it’s the kind of thing that would annoy some people, but I really liked it. 1Q84 is messy, with only limited explanations of key aspects of the world like the Little People, so I think it’s fitting that there are things you will never know.
Despite the title, there were only a few elements of Orwell’s 1984 to draw any kind of comparison/contrast with (now that feels like an annoying English lit question!). But I don’t think this is the kind of book to over-analyse, especially while reading it. I think it’s just about reading and going with it, and you gradually understand the new world you have stepped into (and that there are things you will never understand). The ideas and images in the book find their way in on their own (as will a hunger for proper vegetarian Japanese food).
I called this a ‘beast of a book’, but, despite its sometimes slow-moving 1260 pages, I felt like I breezed through it. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Murakami (maybe Norwegian Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart, or the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?), but it’s still definitely worth your time.
I had to turn my copy of book 3 over when I wasn’t reading it, because I’m pretty sure this bird was watching me in my sleep: