I was at Blackwells at nine o’clock on the release date of 1Q84, the newly translated trilogy by Haruki Murakami, the popular Japanese novelist who had the odds of 8/1 on this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, which eventually went to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
Size matters. Long books inevitably lend themselves to being trumped out as a ‘magnum opus’ (Which raises the question: if the author is alive, how do we know that a bigger, more magnum opus won’t come along?). I have finally come to the novel conclusion that this is a publishing gimmick to make people like me flock to much-heralded books like some to the hope of apocalypse.
The narrative of 1Q84 is split between two protagonists: Aomame, a woman with a blank emotional life, a taste for vengeance, and a talent for killing, and Tengo, a maths teacher-cum-fiction writer. Aomame enters the parallel reality she calls 1Q84, characterized by two moons, by climbing down an emergency expressway stairwell. Tengo is asked by a friend to rewrite a poorly written novella called Air Chrysalis, written by a 17 year old girl for a young writers’ competition. But Fuka-Eri is not an ordinary girl; she’s the survivor of a powerful cult, Sakigake. And Air Chrysalis, with its two moons, cult setting, and malevolent and unexplained Little People, begins to look less and less like fiction.
The narrative pace alternates between the page-turning surge of a pot-boiler (perhaps the after effect of Murakami translating Raymond Chandler into Japanese) and the sort of listless uneventful narrative which only works if your prose sparkles. Unfortunately, Murakami’s prose doesn’t. From the beginning of the novel I was struck by the awkwardness and hollowness of his style. Take this excerpt:
‘How many people could recognize Janácek’s Sinfonietta? Probably somewhere between ‘very few’ and ‘almost none’. But for some reason Aomame was one of those who could.’
I can’t tell whether this is what happens when colloquial Westernized Japanese is translated into English; or if Murakami is just a poor stylist. The syntax is flat, the sentences full of truisms and lazy qualifiers like ‘probably’, ‘kind of’, ‘sometimes’. The dialogue is forced and blank, with the exception, perhaps, of Tengo’s cynical publisher, and Sakigake’s Leader, who spins his own web around Aomame. Aomame betrays the familiar Murakamiesque gullibility and has ‘no choice but to believe fundamentally in what he had said. He was no fanatic, and dying people do not lie.’
Magical realism is too strong a term for the gentle defamiliarisation of Murakami’s worlds. His characters are loners who see reality aslant and are startled by its strangeness. This is one of his fiction’s greatest strengths: the bizarre and unsettling elements of narrative which unite reader and character in trying to decipher the strange cryptograms embedded in the mildly surrealistic world and the oddity of being a part of it.
Murakami is known for studding his fiction with Western references. Lois Sage, a Japanologist from Harris Manchester College, told me that when Murakami was first published in Japan, the page – with kanji (Japanese characters) interrupted by katakana (phoneticized representations of Western loan words) – looked like a ‘quilt’. 1Q84‘s allusions are unsettlingly profuse: to beer, baseball and coffee culture, to Dinesen, the Western Schism, Kafka, Bach, Proust, Copernicus, Sibelius, and Orwell. One wonders if Japanese readers resent these constant references.
The readers and critics of Tengo and Fuka-Eri’s Air Chrysalis are as ‘a bunch of dismayed-looking people clutching at colourful flotation rings…in a large pool full of question marks.’ This is not unlike my experience of 1Q84: anticipating a modern masterpiece I found instead an uneven work that was both thrilling and boring. It ends with a painfully conventional conclusion that also leaves the door vaguely open to the possibility of more of the world of Air Chrysalis. On balance, I would probably stand in line for that one too.