Of all the books longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize that I’ve read so far, 1Q84 is the most problematic for me. Unlike the rest of the Known World, I’ve never read Murakami before, so I can’t compare this book with his previous work or put it in context with his literary oeuvre. That’s a problem, with an author so well-known…
On the other hand, I come to the book with no Murakami baggage, and no expectations. And expectations there were aplenty, apparently, and alongside the rave reviews from readers at GoodReads, Amazon and Library Thing, there have been mutterings of dismay. ‘2011’s Biggest Literary Letdown’ says one, and you can find a useful summary of the critical reception of this book at Neojapanisme. I read none of these until I had read two-thirds of the book and had more-or-less formed my opinion of it, and I’ve still only scanned a few of them. Murakami criticism is an industry, it appears, and you could read an entire novel in the time it would take to read it all.
So why should I spend my time adding to it, eh? Actually, the plan was to wait-and-see if 1Q84 made the Man Asian shortlist and defer reading it if it didn’t. I wanted to read some of Murakami’s other books first, but after reading The Lake I became curious about contemporary Japanese literature. Did Murakami have anything in common with Yoshimoto? Why are these two authors mega-popular in the West as well as in Japan, when most other translated authors are comprehensively ignored by the English-speaking world? Are Murakami and Yoshimoto Japanese Literature Lite??
It seems to me that they do have themes in common: a sense of regret over wasted opportunities pervades 1Q84. Tengo was a maths prodigy as a child but he rejected the certainties of maths and now he’s a hack writer. Aomame was a promising athlete but now she’s a masseuse (with serial killing as a sideline). These two are thirty, but though they’ve spent 20 years remembering holding hands as school kids, neither has taken the initiative to find the other. Like the characters in The Lake they are profoundly lonely people in one of the most crowded cities in the world: both are wholly estranged from their families and have no friends. (In 1Q84 both the main characters have by necessity an unemotional attitude to sex: they have practical arrangements for getting it when they want to satisfy mere animal appetite, no commitment necessary). What’s more, in both books the central characters are victims of strange upbringing but they end up taking control, which they do with a mixture of intuition – which in a soulless age can apparently be trusted – and a sense of destiny.
There are magic realism elements in both stories too, but whereas in The Lake the supernatural elements were mercifully few (and in my opinion necessary only to liven up a rather dull book), in 1Q84 they are the story. Aomame and Tengo are in a different universe, one that looks a lot like Tokyo in 1984, but in fact has a cult that’s got out of control, two moons, malevolent Little People, and lots of bizarre events. I was able to suspend disbelief with this for as long as the novel fooled me into thinking that Aomame and Tengo were the victims of a cult with barmy beliefs, but once it was revealed that the strange things happening were not hallucinations, drug-induced fantasies or the product of crazy lonely minds, but rather that these things were happening in an alternative reality, well, I began to vacillate between only mild interest in the story’s resolution and rather less mild irritation about its sillier aspects. (For those who’ve read 1Q84, yes, it was the first appearance of the Little People that was the trigger.)
Both these Japanese authors are interested in exposing the pernicious effects of religious cults, but Murakami has personal memory of Japan’s most infamous cult whereas Yoshimoto is too young for that. Perhaps the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s trains has faded from public notice in the west, but (according to Wikipedia) it seems that this cult, labelled a terrorist organisation in the EU, US and Canada, is still active in Japan and can’t be shut down because their constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Both Yoshimoto and Murakami focus on the long-term harm done to children in cults such as these, (which is hardly revelatory), and Murakami writes about their secrecy, corruption and underworld connections as well. But his message is undercut by the nonsensical plot elements, the mythology at its silliest when the Leader levitates a clock to show his power and rambles on about dhotas and mazas to impress Aomame and justify his nefarious activities.
Contemporary authors use fantastical elements to remind readers that all fiction is unreal, and to illuminate surreal aspects of modern life. It’s not an aesthetic style I like much, and so I’ve read very little of it apart from some recent Australian examples. Karen Lee Thompson used it effectively in 8 States of Catastrophe; so did Glenda Guest in Siddon Rock and David Musgrave in Glissando. It seems to work well in the Aussie outback…
For Murakami’s novel, however, I needed to consult Wikipedia to clarify my ideas about the characteristics of magic realism. It appears that 1Q84 has got the lot:
- Fantastical elements woven into an otherwise realistic narrative. The Leader levitates a clock; Tamaru can enter a locked apartment without a key, telepathy unites Tengo and Aomame, and there is a whole complicated mythology lying behind the activities of the Sakigake cult. The sex scenes are most fantastic of all, (and risible too) and I have not yet decided whether Murakami is mocking porn movies or having a
littlemonstrous fantasy of his own. (He comments on breasts, a lot).
- A ‘plenitude of disorientating detail': many reviewers have complained that 1Q84 should have had tighter editing. Murakami details the pedestrian events of his characters’ days right down to their ablutions.
- Hybridity (multiple planes of reality): it’s not always clear which time or place events occur in, 1984 or 1Q84. Sometimes the characters don’t know, and neither did I.
- Metafiction: Murakami likes to play around with authorial jokes to remind the reader that he’s there. When Aomame is hiding out in an apartment, Tamaru brings her Proust to read, and sends a box of madeleines ‘to have a positive effect on the flow of time’. Aomame also decides that she can co-write Tengo’s new book so that she’s in control of her life. (The question for me here was, had the book got away from Murakami himself?)
- Authorial reticence: again, many readers and reviewers have complained that Murakami doesn’t explain enough about his ‘disconcerting world’. An early example of this is where Aomame wonders if there has been a time shift since she got off the Tokyo Expressway because there are significant world events that have somehow passed her by, and yet, as planned before she left home, she’s still able to keep her appointment with the dowager (such a quaint term!) Her recognition of Janáček’s Sinfonietta when she’s never heard it before is never explained either (unless I missed it). In Bk 1 Ch 12 when Tengo discusses Eri’s strange book with the Professor, Murakami actually has a little joke about this himself when he says that how much is real and how much is fantasy isn’t clear in this book either.
- Sense of mystery: Wikipedia points out that what this means in a magic realist novel is that one must ‘let go’ of the usual conventions and strive to find the ‘hidden mystery’ of life. The ‘connection’ between Aomame and Tengo seems absurd, but once the reader accepts that a couple of ten-year-olds can define their lives by a bit of hand-holding, Murakami’s theme about the disconnectedness of modern life in Japan becomes clearer.
- Collective consciousness: All the characters share the same acceptance of the weirdness of things. Amongst other enigmatic remarks, Tengo’s father tells him that if you can’t understand without an explanation, you can’t understand with one. (In other words, dear reader, don’t complain.)
- Political critique: With his blunt prose and constant references to the westernisation of Japanese culture (the clothes, the food, the classical and pop music which make his books attractive to Western readers) Murakami undercuts traditional Japanese writing, presumably representing his country’s attachment to tradition and conservatism in general. (I don’t know much about traditional Japanese literature except for The Pillow Book, completed in 1002, but it’s safe to say that Murakami is a very modern reader indeed). Here and there he has a snipe at Japanese sexism (e.g. Ayomi’s limited role in the police force); its wastefulness (the Tiger-in-your-Tank ad for petrol); the dinginess of the city for most of its residents; and the unsolved murders of insignificant people.
So, since 1Q84 ticks all these boxes, criticising it for aspects that are characteristic of magic realism seems a bit naff. Daft as those Little People are, (and you only have to imagine this book being made into a film to see that) they’re mythical beings that belong in the subconscious that we all suppress in our modern, mechanistic world.
But did I like it? Not very much. (Update: But make up your own minds, it was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize as well). Do I think it’s a significant work illuminating some aspect of the human condition? No, not really, there’s nothing very original about any of the themes. Most of these themes have been around for a long time, and Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim explores fundamentalism in a more sophisticated, less black-and-white way. What Murakami’s book has done is to whet my appetite for other contemporary Japanese authors, especially the ones who criticise his literary credentials and label his books pop-culture.
Yes, my hype-detection antennae are on alert!
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Publisher: Random House UK
ePub ISBN: 9781446484197 (Kindle edition)
Source: Personal library, purchased from Amazon.
Or, if you really can’t face reading something that long, there’s the 1Q84 CDs (806min; 38 Units).
Matt from A Novel Approach was the first of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team to tackle this doorstopper, and you can read his review here.
To see a really comprehensive set of reviews about Murakami, visit Writer on Writer – he’s read almost everything and his reviews are excellent.
For descriptions of all the books (with links for where to buy them)
and all the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Team’s reviews
(updated as we write them), click here.