Review: 1Q84 Books One and Two by Haruki Murakami

I am undoubtedly a Murakami convert. I finished Kafka on the Shore with a strange sense of uncertainty, ambiguous on my feelings about the novel. Rarely am I faced with this situation. But I was certain about one thing – that Kafka was fundamentally unlike any other novel that I had read. As I sat down to write the review, it became increasingly clear to me that, as the fog of uncertainty cleared, I was utterly enthralled by Murakami’s style. Kafka is a book that has continued to haunt me since I closed its final pages and any remaining sense of ambiguity was erased when a bookshop trip left me with three new Murakami volumes. When looking for a little escapism from dissertation mania, I knew that it could come in no better form than Murakami’s latest masterpiece, 1Q84.

The novel alternates between the story of two characters, completely different in personality and lifestyle but connected by forces unknown. 1Q84 follows Tengo, a maths teacher and budding author, as he agrees to ghostwrite a mysterious new novel, Air Chrysalis. Air Chrysalis is the product of a seventeen-year old girl who goes by the name Fuka-Eri and is a beguiling but poorly written work. In an effort to secure a literary prize for the novel, Tengo sets out to rewrite it in a more coherent form. But, as he does so, he finds himself drawn into a world where fiction and reality collide. This new world is named 1Q84 by 1Q84‘s other protagonist, Aomame, a gym instructor and assassin. 1Q84 is a world with two moons in the sky, where Air Chrysalis‘ seemingly fictional ‘Little People’ represent a very real threat. Aomame and Tengo both find themselves a part of this alternative but real world, unsure as to their purpose within it or an avenue out. What becomes clear, however, is that their fates are entwined and that they are embroiled in a conflict between realities that will result in fatal consequence.

True to form, Murakami has made an effective plot summary a near impossibility. There is undoubtedly a reason why the book’s blurb consists of just five sentences. Do not, however, allow the above confusion impact your opinion, for this is a novel written with superficial simplicity. As with Kafka, there is a certain necessity of giving yourself over to Murakami’s plot. Attempting to unravel or preempt developments is an impossibility and Murakami is a master at weaving the unexpected throughout his novels. If you are able to enjoy his subversion of expectations, as is necessary with any form of magical realism, you will read nothing quite so intriguing and beautiful. The levels to this novel are numerous, as with all of Murakami’s works. As a homage to George Orwell, however, it is the allusions to 1984 that I found particularly interesting and well-placed:

“The Professor stared at his hands for a time, then looked up and said, ‘George Orwell introduced the dictator Big Brother in his novel 1984, as I’m sure you know. The book was an allegorical treatment of Stalinism, of course. And ever since then, the term ‘Big Brother’ has functioned as a social icon. That was Orwell’s great accomplishment. But now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we’d point to him and say, ‘Watch out! He’s Big Brother!’ There’s no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don’t you think?'”

This introduction of the Little People as a new and alternative manifestation of Orwell’s Big Brother is just one way in which Murakami manipulates the reader’s preconceptions and prejudgments. And he does so with an ease that stands as testament to his skill. In my view, the mark of a master magical realist (this label being the one that I think most applies to Murakami, although still lacking in precision) is the ability to seamlessly interweave meticulous description of reality with the bizarre. Murakami’s attention to the habits of reality and the everyday is demonstrated most acutely through his intimate descriptions of meal time rituals:

“Tengo washed the rice, put it in the cooker, and turned on the switch. He used the time until the rice was ready to make miso soup with wakame seaweed and green onions, grill a sun-dried mackerel, take some tofu out of the refrigerator and flavor it with ginger, grate a chunk of daikon radish, and reheat some leftover boiled vegetables. To go with the rice, he set out some pickled turnip slices and a few pickled plums.”

Seemingly unnecessary in detail, Murakami’s purpose with these passages is to provide a consistent anchor to the real world. This not only makes his allusions to unreality more effective (as per 1Q84’s two moons) but also provides a necessary balance between the two dimensions of the genre. Balance is a theme underwriting this novel and it comes up time and again. The Little People, as a sort of balancing consequence of Orwell’s Big Brother, are connected with pursuit of a balance between good and evil – and it is this balance that should be read into 1Q84.

” ‘In this world, there is no absolute good, no absolute evil’, the man said. ‘Good and evil are not fixed, stable entities but are continually trading places. A good may be transformed into an evil in the next second. And vice versa. Such was the way of the world that Dostoevsky depicted in The Brothers Karamazov. The most important thing is to maintain the balance between the constantly moving good and evil. If you lean too much in either direction, it becomes difficult to maintain actual morals. Indeed, balance itself is the good.

I have a feeling that this emphasis on balance is the central aspect of Orwell’s 1984 invoked as an inspiration by Murakami. Rejection of the totalitarianism embodied by Big Brother is, after all, an attempt to redress that constantly moving balance between perceptions of good and evil. Yet Murakami’s emphasis on balance permeates 1Q84 to a unique degree. Not only is it a concept emphasised throughout the plot, it is also reflected in the novel’s structure, as chapters alternate between the narratives of Tengo and Aomame. The two central characters are, from the beginning, set up as presenting some kind of balance to one another, although the nature of their juxtaposition is unknown until the end.

Having read a couple of the reviews of 1Q84 on Goodreads, one central suggestion seemed to be that this is not a novel for those new to the work of Haruki Murakami. I fundamentally disagree. Unlike Kafka, this is a book about which I feel no ambiguity. It reads with superficial simplicity, deceptive when one considers the complex dynamics underlying the plot. The complexities and unrealities are, however, thrown in with such ease that their acceptance presents little challenge to the reader. Without preempting myself too much, given that I still have a pile of Murakami to work through, I would not be surprised if 1Q84 represents the highpoint of his literary turnout. It is magnificent.


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