1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI

I need to start this review with something of a caveat – for the most part, I don’t like the work of Haruki Murakami. His works tend to leave me feeling cold, and perhaps more importantly, repetitive. But the amount of hype surrounding 1Q84 was massive – both in Japan and overseas – and so I felt obliged to give it a go. And then it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, so I couldn’t back out of it. And in case you don’t want to read the whole review (this is slightly longer than I write for most things I review here), this was pretty much my first thought after finishing this 900 page beast: there’s too many hours of my life I’m never going to get back.

I’ve never completely understood the reason for Murakami’s popularity in the West, or indeed, in Japan. Rebecca Suter, an academic at Sydney Uni, offers an interesting thesis that makes a lot of sense in my head. You’ll have to read the whole thing here, but the thrust is that Murakami manages to blend both Western and Japanese cultural backgrounds into his novels, and this appeals to both sides. For Japanese readers, to Western pop culture references are other-worldly enough to be fascinating, while still being grounded in Japanese sensibility. This is reversed for Western readers, who enjoy the glimpses of an exotic other in his work, while still being comfortable with understandable references.

This is helped, no doubt, by the two translators of 1Q84 – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have translated Murakami’s work before. Before we get to the issue of having two translators for one novel (I think it’s a terrible idea), there’s the fact that there seems to be a concerted effort by these translators to make Murakami more palatable to Western tastes – a simple comparison of passages in the Japanese original, and then the English translation, highlight missing words – sometimes sentences – chopped up phrases, and generally weird stuff going on. I’ve always been taught to keep as close to the original text s possible, preserving sentences and words, even if they sound a little funny, but clearly Rubin and Gabriel think differently. If I were a better person, I would have read this in Japanese, but you probably wouldn’t have the translation for a few more months…

This is all, of course, only tangentially related to this novel, but these are the questions I was thinking about as I read 1Q84. And you should all, too. As a widely publicised “magnus opus,” it has become something of a lightning rod for people’s views of Murakami’s work – everything you expect from a “Murakami novel” is here, so if you’re expecting something different, be prepared to be disappointed.

Tengo Kawana has been given an unusual request by his editor – to rework a novella from a young girl called Fuka-Eri, and enter it into the new writers’ prize. He does, but in doing so, is pulled into a world he never knew existed. Meanwhile, Aomame works as an assassin, killing men who perpetrate domestic violence. But when she walks onto a highway exit from a taxi, she too is drawn into a strange world where not quite everything is as she remembers.

Murakami’s characters have fantastical adventures to escape their everyday, humdrum lives. This is, of course, the message he has been sending us right from the beginning – that modern Japanese society is so deeply unfulfilling, so boring, people turn to the magical to fill their days. Tengo is no different to this – his own frustrations as a writer allow him to be more open to the strange request that draws him into the parallel world of 1Q84, a parallel version of the 1984 in which this novel is set.

The world into which Tengo finds himself drawn is a world of strange cults in which supernatural events are an everyday occurrence, where strange creatures are born out of thin air, only to make their own chrysalis to create more people, and where the mother/daughter (maza/dohta in the translation, マザー/ドウタ) relationship is vitally important. Murakami is a frustrated science fiction writer stuck in the wrong literary mode. So many of these ideas would be fantastic, if only Murakami could channel them into a big, bold, proper literary sci-fi novel, and deal with them properly. Instead, they are relegated to quirky post-modern window dressings, in a world of very confused sexual politics.

Which brings me around to Aomame, a character that should be far more engaging than she actually is. I love the idea of a broken woman going on a rampage and carefully assassinating men who beat their wives. There’s an entire novel in that sentence alone. But once Aomame is drawn into the mysterious world of Sakigake (先駆け, or frontrunners, in Japanese) the cult which forms the main focus of the mystery at the centre of 1Q84, she seems to lose that drive, and instead become all consumed with finding Tengo, a boy she went to school with and had a strange, but significant ten second encounter with twenty years ago.

It seems desperately unfair that a big fat horrible man should be allowed to die in a manner of his choosing. In the real world, any middle aged man who has “ambiguous congress” with underage girls is rightly punished, particularly when he says he did it because of some supernatural being. But in Murakami’s world, because these beings are real, it seems somehow more justified. This man is simply doing his job. Which is an uncomfortable thought, to say the least. And for a novel that brings questions of domestic violence, and of poorly treated women, to the fore, I feel like Murakami should be making a better point. There’s also the awkwardly and deeply uncomfortable sex scene between Tengo and Fuka-Eri (which did make it onto the shortlist of this year’s bad sex award). For me, it’s not uncomfortable because it’s badly written, but because Murakami goes out of his way to describe Fuka-Eri as child-like in appearance, and indeed manner, so it reads like Tengo is sleeping with a child. I don’t think I need to explain any further why I found that uncomfortable.

Then, of course, we get to the third section, which feels like an unnecessary addition in so many ways. Written about a year after the first two sections, it introduces a third point of view character, Ushikawa, who in many ways, is completely unnecessary. In other ways, though, he’s quite useful, because he actually has some plot to be getting on with, and his chapters allow you to understand why it is that Tengo and Aomame are being (very poorly) chased by Sakigake.

There are some positives, though. I love the old woman for whom Aomame works – there’s something really cool in the idea of an old woman crusading against domestic violence from the comfort of her upper-class house, getting other people to do her dirty work for her. And some of Murakami’s post-modern tricks work out quite well – there’s a big discussion about Chekov’s gun when Aomame is given a pistol by Tamaru, and the idea that, now it’s been introduced into the story, it must be used. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s quite cool. Bonus points, too, for making Tamaru a gay zainichi from Sakhalin, filling all of the minority tick boxes. Minus points, though, for making him poorly written, spouting weird dialogue that is comically unnatural and far too self-aware. Saying that he is gay, so naturally he loves interior design, for example.

1Q84 is messy and unwieldy. It’s far too long for its own good, partially because things repeat themselves again and again – perhaps a better editor was needed. But its ideas and politics are messy, too, and while there are some great concepts buried within these 900 pages, Murakami ultimately prefers to obfuscate them with unnecessary post-modern trickery that was old thirty years ago when he repeated it in his earlier novels. I wonder if the title “magnum opus” is being used because it’s so freaking long? Of course, it has everything one expects to find in a Murakami novel, but that’s about it. 1Q84 doesn’t bring anything new or fresh to the table, particularly in the Haruki Murakami canon.

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38 thoughts on “1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI

  1. Fay says:

    Matt, I was already thinking that since reviews were mixed and time tight until the Man Asian Prize shortlist anouncement, this book could wait until January. If it makes the shortlist, I will try to read it. One of the judges is a senior Indian diplomat now working in Japan, and M. is the most celebrated of the longlist writers. It will be astonishing if he is not shortlisted, but finishing the rest of the longlist will be a stretch without attempting this tome. I have enjoyed Murakami in the past, but this novel sounds iffy. Thanks for taking on this task. My holiday season will be a lot lighter without a self-imposed deadline to read 1Q84 by January 10, and your review helped with that decision.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I’m hoping for a Christmas miracle, and it not making the shortlist. Like The Stranger’s Child not making the Booker shortlist this year, maybe the judges’ll try to generate some controversy, and not put it through.

  2. Terrific review. I love the title and, based on a couple of snippets I’d read, thought I might tackle it during the so-called holiday season. However, I have so many books that I am ‘champing at the bit’ to get stuck into, I might leave this one alone.

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve only just started it, Matt, and so I hesitated to read your review but I couldn’t help myself LOL. I’m only reading it for about half an hour a day while I read other things as well, so it could well be past Jan 10 before I finish it.
    Interesting what you say about the translation. I think that Please Look After Mom/Mother suffers from its translation too…

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I’m curious as to your initial thoughts. Are you a Murakami fan?

      • Lisa Hill says:

        This is the problem, I’ve never read Murakami, and here I am starting with this doorstopper, which by most accounts is not one of his bests. I’d really rather have read at least one of the three on my TBR first…

  4. [...] Prize team to tackle the Haruki Murakmi’s doorstopper IQ84, and you can read his review here.   Matt is a student of Japanese language and culture and he has some interesting comments about [...]

  5. Tony says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say Matt, but as a Murakami fan, I’m probably coming at it from a slightly different starting point :) I think that it is flawed, but ultimately well worth reading, and worth reading as three novels, separately.

    I’m currently compiling my thoughts for a series of posts, but I have already taken a couple of ‘lighter’ looks at ’1Q84′ if you’re interested:

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com/2011/12/1q84-book-one-split-decision.html

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com/2011/12/1q84-book-two-brief-chat-with-mr.html

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Yes, look, this novel has convinced me that Murakami just isn’t for me, and I should probably give it at least another five years before I even begin to think about picking up another of his novels.

      I’m curious, though. I’ve heard he’s a much better short story writer than novelist – have you found that?

      • Tony says:

        I prefer his novels, but his short stories are also very good. ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ is probably his best collection, but ‘afterthequake’ is excellent in its own short, weird little way! ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ is a mish-mash of various stuff, and it shows a little, but there are some good stories here too. Several of his novels actually started life as short stories, and these are included in the collections.

  6. [...] 1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI « A Novel Approach I need to start this review with something of a caveat – for the most part, I don't like the work of Haruki Murakami. His works tend to leave me feeling cold, and perhaps more importantly, repetitive. Source: matttodd.wordpress.com [...]

  7. Oh dear, I don’t know what to think about this. I’m intrigued by your sci-fi comment. I assume you’ve read other non-sci-fi books that have flights of fancy like, say, magical realist books. DO you feel the same about them is there something particular about Murakami that makes you feel this?

    I have to say that the length puts me off despite my being a Murakami fan … like Fay I’ll probably decide when I see whether it makes the shortlist.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I’m not averse to flights of fancy – the parts in Yoshimoto’s The Lake are quite nicely done, and work like Sjon’s From the Mouth of the Whale manage to weave it in quite well.

      It just feels to me that Murakami’s ideas are far more sci-fi than magical realism, if that makes any sense at all. They tend to be more pulpy, less symbolic, though more than anything, are not integrated into his work very well. These things are introduced, have no real bearing on the plot, and are never explained.

  8. [...] Mahmoud DOWLATABADI (Lisa) River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH (Lisa) 1Q84 – Haruki MURAKAMI (Me) The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY (Me) Please Look After Mother – Kyung-Sook SHIN (Me; [...]

  9. [...] Prize team to tackle the Haruki Murakmi’s doorstopper 1Q84, and you can read his review here.   Matt is a student of Japanese language and culture and he has some interesting comments about [...]

  10. [...] Murakami‘s IQ84 (Japan) by Matt of A Novel Approach. Matt, a student of Japanese literature, has mixed feelings. He [...]

  11. Mel u says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say-in fact I liked the book less than you do-I am very much a Murakami fan and had very high hopes for 1Q84-I found too much weight put on the use of the little people and as I read it it I could not but imagine them all bursting spontaneously into song-I found the religious cult uninteresting and the big romance was one of the weakest parts of the book

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Yeah, the connection between Tengo and Aomame was tenuous at best. Particularly the revelation in the third act, which I found ridiculous.

      Good point, too, about the cult – why where they there? Why was it a secret? Who even were they?

      • Mel u says:

        On the cult-who with an IQ above 84 would follow them? on the little people, do they emerge naked? are they female or male and of they are women where is the descriptions of their breasts -

  12. winstonsdad says:

    I ve yewt to read this matt but fro your review it sums up my feelings before reading it that it is too long and the transaltion has been rushed out one person should have done it ,I m still not sure if I will read it but if it makes shortlist I ll have too ,all the best stu

    • Matthew Todd says:

      It’s waaaaaaaaaaaay too long.

      Re: the translation – I’m not sure it was necessarily rushed – the first two parts were released in May 2009, so there’s been some time. And the third part was at the beginning of last year. But yes, I do think it should have been done by one person.

  13. [...] currently reading and enjoying my first Murakami, 1Q84 (reviewed already on Matt’s blog) and am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Rebirth, which is apparently on its way from India! That [...]

  14. [...] of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team to tackle this doorstopper, and you can read his review here. Share this:DiggRedditStumbleUponFacebookTwitterEmailLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  15. [...] 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. [...]

  16. [...] 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. [...]

  17. [...] 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. [...]

  18. [...] 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. [...]

  19. [...] (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 – [...]

  20. [...] didn’t like it much, echoing many of the bloggers’ reviews I’ve read, including Matt who has also reviewed it for our [...]

  21. [...] novel, The Lake, was first published in 2005, a full four years before Murakami’s 1Q84 – though they share some similar themes. Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village was also [...]

  22. [...] for a second opinion? Here’s what some others thought: Literary Hoarders | A Novel Approach | Between the [...]

  23. I am a fan of Murakami and this is undoubtedly considered one of his best novels, right there with works like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Like all those works, examining the novel felt like slowly sinking into a well of dreams, and being enveloped in a mood of awareness and off hand beauty/absurdity.

    In such a long and complex book, there is lots more to share. For instance, Murakami follows the idea that time does not move in a straight line. In 1Q84, time twists around, perception shifts, and the past can sneak up unannounced behind you. These are simply a very few of the exciting themes I found.

  24. kpmsprtd says:

    I’m in the book now, and I can’t come out. Quite sleep-deprived at work. I hope I don’t get in trouble. Murakami, The Master Story Technician, simply owns me.

    • Matt, I am glad that I came across your review. I have gone through 200 pages of this book and have started feeling that probably I am wasting time. I sort of re-re-checked the best sellers list to be sure of what I am reading. I hate to leave books unfinished but here I think I must take an exception.

      • Matthew Todd says:

        It doesn’t really get any better, I’m afraid. I don’t know if you’ve read Murakami before, but if you haven’t , and you want to, I would find some of the short stories and earlier short novels. They’re much tighter, and a lot better for it.

  25. [...] 1Q84 (2009) – HARUKI MURAKAMI [...]

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