Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2011

1Q84 (2009-2010), by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

1Q84: Books 1 and 2
1Q84: Book 3: Book 3Of 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 little monstrous 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
Title: 1Q84
Publisher:  Random House UK
ePub ISBN: 9781446484197 (Kindle edition)
Source: Personal library, purchased from Amazon.

1Q84For a book of this size, a Kindle edition is the easiest (most lightweight) way to read it. But if you prefer a book…

Fishpond: 1Q84: Books 1 and 2 and 1Q84: Book 3: Book 3
Or – in a single book – 1Q84: Book 1, 2 and 3 (it weighs 1.19kg!)

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.


  1. Fascinating, Lisa. I’m leaving it till last. I read Norwegian Wood some time ago, and it didn’t make too big an impression on me. But your review adds to my intrigue.


    • I’m going to check out if Stu (Winston’s Dad) knows of other Japanese authors in translation. I’d like to read something really interesting…


  2. If you check out the ‘Japan’ tag on my blog, you may find a Japanese review or two…

    …or 50 ;)


    • I’ll do that, thanks Tony:


  3. Lisa … you should read Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. Very very different to Murakami and a mid twentieth century classic. Other Japanese authors worth reading are Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata (a Nobel prize winner). I’ve only read one book by each of these but want to read more. There’s Natsuo Kirino, whose Grotesque I really liked. (Only a couple of her novels have been translated I believe). Sawako Ariyoshi is a favourite of mine. My review of her The doctor’s wife is one of my most “hit” posts, but I’ve read at least two other books by her too, which I liked more.

    As for Murakami … I’m not sure about this one – none of the reviews I’ve read are encouraging me I must say. However, I did love Norwegian wood and also After Dark. I enjoyed Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World though it hasn’t stayed in my mind as well as the others I’ve read. I also really liked his short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. All this is to say that I wouldn’t wipe him on the basis of this book. He’s an interesting man and writer …


  4. There’s some good recommendations here, Sue, thanks. I went over to Tony’s website to explore, (what a treasure trove!) and realised that I do actually have A Thousand Cranes by Kawabata, and (although I’d forgotten it) I’ve read not only The Makioka Sisters but also The Doctor’s Wife. So I should dig out my reading journals from 2001 and see if that improves my memory of these two.
    I’ve started The Sly Company today and am enjoying it, how about you?


    • J-Lit has been one of my specialist areas of reading since starting my blog at the start of 2009, and my personal library is growing and growing :)

      A few more-specific recommendations:

      – Natsume Soseki’s ‘Kusamakura’: A wonderful, whimsical book full of half-serious philosophical musings with a very loose plot – perfect summer reading, to be enjoyed in small morsels!

      – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s ‘Quicksand’: Where ‘The Makioka Sisters’ is sedate, ‘Quicksand (a tale of sexual obsession) is outrageous for its time, an incredible page-turner.

      – Kenzaburo Oe’s ‘A Personal Matter’: This is a semi-autobiographical story of a man’s attempt to come to terms with the birth of a brain-damaged child and the way he goes off the rails – but will he get back on them…

      – Shunsaku Endo’s ‘Silence’: A seventeenth-century missionary secretly enters Japan in an attempt to learn the truth about another priest’s apostasy. One of my books of the year for 2011.

      – Yukio Mishima’s ‘Spring Snow’: The first book in his ‘Sea of Tranquility’ tetralogy, and probably his best – everything people love about Japanese writing.

      As for Murakami, one place to start might be one of his short-story collections, especially ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ – this will allow you to dip into his style.

      Hope that helps :)


      • This is very helpful Tony – and it prompts me to make a suggestion: just as I have a list of Best Australian books for anyone who wants to start but doesn’t know where to begin, (see with a permanent link on the ANZLL Books You Must Read page (which has now become a bit too long to be helpful to anybody) – how about if you do the same for Japanese literature, with just a short enticing description? Then there would be a permanent reference point for me and anyone else who wants to explore in your area of expertise…
        PS Happy New Year!


        • That’s an idea… for some point in the future ;)

          By the way, I forgot one indispensable Japanese work –
          The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories: 35 stories ranging from the start to the end of the twentieth century, written by virtually of all of Japan’s most famous modern writers :)


  5. […] (Lisa; Mark) River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH (Lisa; Mark) 1Q84 – Haruki MURAKAMI (Me; Lisa) The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY (Me; Fay; Sue; Mark) Please Look After Mother – […]


  6. Excellent review — it tends to confirm my concerns about this book and I definitely will give it a pass.

    While I don’t think it is necessarily typical of Japanese literary fiction, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X ranks as one of my pleasant surprise novels of 2011. It is a murder novel but since we know the murderer from the start (so it is actually a murder cover-up novel) the story is more of an intricate game between detective and the cover-up artist. I’m not big on the murder or mystery genre, but this one goes somewhere else.


    • Hi Kevin, thanks for dropping by:) That sounds like an interesting one too, I’m starting to get a bit of a wishlist together!


  7. I ll be passing this lisa I just think it was rushed out should been a single translator and maybe not his masterpiece as we all thought ,all the best stu and a happy new year to you and yours stu


  8. Years ago I went through a magical realism reading phase, with the emphasis on Latin America. American author and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison also uses magical realism to good effect, and in the past I’ve enjoyed Murakami’s uses of the technique. This book does not, however, sound very appealing. I am determined to sample it but am not looking forward to the chore.

    Happy New Year, Lisa! May your reading year be rewarding.


    • Ah, Toni Morrison, I’ve only ever read Beloved and was utterly overwhelmed by it. I must read more of her – have you reviewed any? (I did do a search at your blog but maybe I missed something?)


      • Lisa, it has been years since I read Morrison. Thus no blog posts on her work. That’s a situation to be corrected.


  9. Hey, excellent review Lisa, even though I don’t share your concerns! I just like Murakami. Except for Norwegian Wood (which perversely enough means ‘fake’ and is straight realism) none of Murakami’s fiction is realistic, and you just come to accept it and go for a ride :)
    Happy New Year!


    • Hey, Magda, nice to see you here! Thank you for your kind comments, and I love that you disagree so nicely!


  10. Thanks for your really interesting review. I love reading your updates on new titles, but haven’t commented until now. However … having found your review in my inbox just moments after reading an article about NASA’s current voyage to discover whether the earth really did have 2 moons , and having just finished Books 1 and 2 of 1Q84, I thought there was enough weird synchronicity to make a comment.
    I have read and enjoyed Murakami before so I was prepared for the magical realist elements and easily immersed myself in the narrative. While I can understand your frustration with some of it and applaud your hype detector I do think there was quite a lot worth thinking about in the novel.
    For example I’m not sure that Murakami’s use of magical realism is only intended to remind us that fiction is not real as you suggest, or to highlight aspects of the surreal in the everyday.
    Instead I think he uses the device to invite readers to explore the perils of belief, particularly beliefs that justify cruel moral frameworks. It is easy to see the cruelty in the Sagigake cult where they believe it is justifiable to isolate a 10 year old girl for ten days for a misdemeanour and where the rape of underage girls is not seen as a crime, but as “having congress”. But the cult is not the only target. The self-absorbed Tengo justifies his cruel abandonment of his father because of his belief in his “waking dream” about his mother and Aomame and the Dowager do not see themselves as vigilante assassins, but as people who are doing the “right” thing in response to domestic violence and sexual abuse. As readers too we are invited to take their point of view and become easy accomplices to murder.
    At first I found Aomame a very sympathetic character. She seemed strong, in control of her destiny – a kind of damaged survivor in the mould of a Lisbeth Salander. However as the novel progresses she becomes the ultimate believer and suffers the consequences of that.
    When she first attempts to understand how there could be two moons in the sky, she considers, but then discounts the possibility that the problem lies with her. Instead she makes the bold and basically psychotic choice to believe that it is the world that is deranged. She finds herself completely alone in this world of two moons and remains in fear of “having reality leave me behind”. By the time she meets the Leader she is so completely absorbed by the belief that she lives in 1Q84 that she is easily manipulated by his explanations of fate and the power of the Little People. She is the ultimate belief martyr willing to kill and die to protect the love of her life from the putative power of the Little People.
    I don’t think it’s an accident that Murakami makes the agents of power and destiny into these risible “Little People”. They are absurd. That is the point. As I see it, the Little People are a metaphor for the various futile explanations for the unknowable that we choose to believe in. These “mental landscapes” as Tamaru describes them, are neither good nor bad, but if we choose to let them they can exert unreasonable power over our actions and end up hurting ourselves and others.
    At one point Tengo describes the world of story as a “deep magical forest”. I like this metaphor, it certainly describes what it is like reading a Murakami novel and it fits that he makes the Little People dwell in the forest –ie in our stories to ourselves. Tengo also says that the story is a place where a problem can be transposed into another form and a solution suggested by the narrative. I think one of the problems being explored in this novel is what happens when beliefs go unquestioned.
    I especially like the idea of 1Q84 as “the world as a question mark”. Aomame begins to question her reality, but turns away from a solution in herself and succumbs to the notion of fate. Her final act is a superstitious attempt at re-enactment in which she tries to change her reality by going back to the highway. In the end she is lost to despair which has been her reality from the outset.
    Fuka Eri is interesting because she speaks without question marks. This has the effect of making her appear knowing, when in fact she is simply trapped in a deeply animistic superstitious worldview which interprets weather as a sign that “the little people are stirring” and takes no personal responsibility, leaving everything to fate. It is no wonder that she functions as a conduit for the mayhem of the “little people” on herself and her community.
    If the problem being explored in the novel is what happens when beliefs go unquestioned then what is the solution? I think Tengo finds it when he recognises in the end that no matter which “world” he inhabits whether it has one moon or two he is who he is – and that’s where the real question lies p618.
    Incidentally the notion of parallel universes didn’t bother me. It is not that strange at all in terms of our storying given that Christians all around the world accept the notion of parallel realms of heaven and hell without the blink of an eye. Ultimately I think Murakami’s point is not what we believe in, but what we do as a consequence.
    There are of course lots of annoying loose ends and inconsistencies throughout, but in general I just went along for the ride in this novel. For me the major flaw in Book 2 especially was the alternative Murakami offers up to empty belief and cruelty – the so called deep connection between Tengo and Aomame. I did not find this believable and at times it was just sickeningly sentimental. For all its putative depth it was completely impotent as a force in their lives. They may have felt love, but they were not able to act on it. They remain cut off, emotionally deformed people.
    Will I read the next 2 books? Not sure yet.



    • Hello Sue – and welcome: your input here is really helpful! I really value your comment because even though we disagree about this book you have really argued the case well, and I think that readers who haven’t made their minds up about 1Q84 will appreciate that.
      (Maybe you should have your own blog and be writing reviews too *encouraging smile*?)
      I hope you come back often and share your thoughts here!


  11. I think 1Q84 shouldn’t be taken as an example of Japanese literature, because even though the names and places are Japanese, the story is surreal and takes place in an alternate world where national identities and borders and classifications don’t exist in the same way. You may not have connected to this book, but it was true to the voice of Murakami’s previous novels. Not that 1Q84 is without its faults. I posted some of them in my own review of the book.


    • Hello Ellis – I’m sorry it took a day or two for your comment to make it here, it was hiding in my spam folder for some peculiar reason. I’m glad I found it there because yes, it’s good to see a thoughtful review from a Murakami fan! (The link to the review is
      Thanks for dropping by:)


  12. Enjoyed your review Lisa. Very thorough! I have only read Norwegian Wood, which I don’t believe is representative of Murakami’s oeuvre. My main feeling with respect to Murakami is that I would read him as literary fiction rather than Japanese fiction. In much the same way that Nabokov doesn’t precisely embody the essence of Russian lit. (In my opinion.)

    A good Japanese author that no-one has mentioned here yet is Akira Yoshimura. His portrays a Japan that resists Westernisation. Highly recommended.


  13. Thanks, Sarah, then Akira Yoshimura goes on my JapLit TBR too!


  14. I am a fan of Murakami and this is obviously one of his very best novels, right there with works like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Similarly to those works, browsing the novel felt like slowly sinking into a well of dreams, and being wrapped in a mood of fascination and off hand beauty/absurdity.

    So overall, if you like his works much like me, this is a must read and a good time : If you’ve never read him, you might like to begin with something shorter like Hard Boiled Wonderland.


    • Hello, thank you so much for your comment. I haven’t given up on Murakami at all: I have had The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore on my TBR for a while because they were highly recommended, and I will get to them one of these days!


  15. […] 1Q84: Books 1, 2 and 3, by Haruki Murakami (see my review) […]


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