Monday, 7 November 2011

Book review: 1Q84, Haruki Murakami (2011)

The first thing I need to say at the outset here is that there will probably be a few spoilers in this review, so if you haven't read the book and don't want to have outcomes disclosed at this point, then stop reading at the white rabbit and come back at the fat twins.

As I say at the end of the review, there's more to the novel than just a clever plot. Reviews I've read have been a bit anodyne and have pretty much said the same things, so you normally get mentions of the cooking, the classical music, the magical elements that Murakami uses in his meditations on the nature of good and evil. I've also come across the word 'existential' for later Murakami novels, and I'll admit the potency of this label because it says something about what happened to Murakami's output since Sputnik Sweetheart (2001).

In that novel, a young woman who was not usual and who had mixed feelings about her life vanishes one day from the face of the earth. In Kafka on the Shore (2005), we had the cat-eating Johnny Walker stalking through the protagonist's reality like a spruced-up zombie. And in After Dark (2007) we get the theme of violence against women. A central theme in 1Q84 is violence against children - the first time Murakami has touched on this confronting theme. All these novels are irresistable in the way that any Murakami novel is. It's not an accident that his books sell in huge numbers, even though the author himself seems to be unaware of how much money he possesses. But they're different, I think, in tone from the stuff that preceded them, which is the reason for this 'existential' label I've recently heard about from a reliable source.

In 1Q84 there are two trands of narrative that intertwine like the two strands of a piece of DNA. One strand belongs to Tengo, a young writer, and the other belongs to Aomame, a fitness instructor. A third strand is introduced in the third book and it belongs to Ushikawa, a sort of private investigator who also works as a general factotum for the religious cult Murakami has invented, called Sakigake. This Ushikawa strand adds considerable tension for the reader in the third book as this man efficiently stalks the two 30-year-olds, who also happen to be long-time lovers: their romance began in primary school and has remained unconsummated but steadfast ever since. There are more characters than this, of course, as you would expect from a novel that runs to 925 pages. And while the length makes reading a bit of a challenge - I read in bed, and have to hold the book up with one hand - the novel never flags.

Aomame is more than just a fitness instructor, of course. She also doubles as a hired assassin. Her agreement with the potent Dowager includes topping men who perpetrate violence against women, using a special technique she has perfected over the years that involves a long, thin ice-pick-like implement that Aomame carries around topped with a specially-soft cork inside a hard case. Aomame uses her trained fingers to locate a point at the back of her victim's neck and then uses her right hand to deliver the fatal blow by hitting the upward end of the implement downwards. The benefit of this method is that there are never any signs of violence on the corpses. The men seem to have died of natural causes. The Dowager presented me with a problem, however. Ensconced within a magisterial manor located in the heart of the ritziest postcode of Tokyo, and watched over by a gay ex-Self Defense Force soldier, the Dowager enjoys sitting in a hothouse filled with butterflies, listening to classical music and sipping hot tea. Aomame seems to be enchanted with her but I found her cold.

This may be because 1Q84 doesn't really 'end'. Apparently Murakami has admitted that there might be a sequel, and I hope there is because there are a lot of loose ends left untied. The Dowager and her assistant, Tamaru, are one loose end. If Aomame comes back to reclaim the significant sums of money she had secreted away, what will these two do?

There are other loose ends, too. We still don't know much about the Little People, nor about air crysalises. Fuka-Eri's story is as deserving of development as Ushikawa's, but she just disappears. One day she's hiding out in Tengo's apartment, the next day she's gone off somewhere. As the daughter of the Sakigake cult's Leader she played a pivotal role in the story by writing the story Air Crysalis, which Tengo rewrote so that it would become a best-seller. On the night Leader is despatched by Aomame in her usual efficient way, Fuka-Eri has sex with Tengo and Aomame becomes pregnant. If Fuka-Eri is unable to concieve because - even at 17 years old - she has never menstruated, then she must be an incomplete entity, a type of manufactured simulacrum tied in some way to the methods of the Little People, a dohta in fact.

It's almost monstrous that Murakami has invented yet another alternate reality within which to discuss such things as good and evil. And it is here - and in the excellent writing that characterises this book - that the real action plays out. These subtle meditations belong to Murakami, just like the constant production of effective metaphors and images belongs to him, in the same way that seemingly-rambling meditations speckled with concise logic belong to Kenzaburo Oe, the other great living Japanese writer (the one who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Reading Murakami is a joy not just because of the clever plotting and devilish complexity of his stories' logic, but because he is a very artful writer who always seeks out the most efficient way to convey meaning. If this requires the inclusion of poetic devices, then Murakami does not shy away from the challenge.

But it is in the interplay of meanings thrown up by the characters and their trajectories that Murakami is most to be admired, I think. There is surely something magical about Japan, the magic exists on the everyday streets and in the quotidian houses. It is a subtle mechanism of this nature that Murakami brings into his novels - into 1Q84 no less than into the others - and which provides the reader with the greatest satisfaction. The mind races back and forth between actual reality and the reality of the novel like a shuttle on a loom, weaving a semantic tapestry. It's great fun to read Murakami, and this novel should not disappoint anyone, even if they have never read one of his books before.

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