1Q84 By By Haruki Murakami – A Magical Read

1Q84 is the 10th Murakami book that I have read.  There are similarities when compared to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.  It is divided into three books that span across three consecutive time periods.  Each chapter is named using a phrase found inside that chapter. 1Q84 further explores the concept of free will versus destiny and fate.  Having a page count of 925 covering the topics of cult religion, love and friendship, murder and violence, history and philosophy, 1Q84 is an ambition work of literature.  In addition, 1Q84 opens us to the world of alternative realities and it embeds stories within a story.  George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has a theme on Big Brother.  1Q84 – a world that bears a question – switches the theme to Little People.  I took my time in devouring the entire book slowly and I enjoyed every bit of it.  For those who are new to Murakami, he is a Japanese writer and has won literature awards such as Jerusalem Prize.  Milan Kundera and Don DeLillo are among the prize winners whose work I also enjoy reading.  In view of this, perhaps I shall explore that list further in order to expand my reading horizon.

Some readers of my site have asked why I am so into Murakami’s books.  It is hard to describe.  But in the best I can, his unique style works for me.  Murakami tends to spend much effort in building the characters as well as the environment that wraps around the plot.  When writing in the mode of realism, Murakami put much details onto every single elements making them alive and real.  When writing in the mode of surrealism, Murakami describes the unimaginable so well that you feel as though you are sucked into this surreal vision.  The author is meticulous in crafting the plot, down to the very detail that links multiple plots into one.  His works are often filled with mystery that readers have little idea on where the story is heading.  In my limited reading experience, I have not read any book quite like his, in the same quality level.

Book 1 begins with the story of Aomame.  She is inside a taxi stuck in a traffic jam listening to classical music played on the radio.  On one highway, she has decided to get off the taxi, walk down the emergency exit and take a subway.  Before leaving the taxi, the driver says the following.

“It’s just that you’re about to something out of the ordinary … And after you do something like that, everyday look of things might seem to change a little.  Things may look different to you than they did before … But don’t let appearances fool you.  There’s always only one reality.”

That pretty much kicks start the concept of an alternative reality.  And before the author reveals the nature of Aomame’s appointment that cannot be missed, chapter two brings in a new character called Tengo.  He is a mathematics teacher by day and writes literature as his hobby.  He is about to encounter a writing competition submission by a seventeen years old girl.  Her story Air Chrysalis may read like a fantasy but it is slowly shifting into the very reality Tengo lives in.  How are the two main characters going to interact in 1Q84 when they have no such possibility in 1984?  This book by and large follows a structure that toggles the stories between Aomame and Tengo.  Throughout the book, there is this concept of light and shadow, or maza and dohta.  There are enough logos and hooks that make the twin stories connect, and not feeling disjointed.  Murakami varies the timeline too by allows part of the plots to overlap in time.  The result is that although the plots run in different threads, the overall story is not confusing.  Characters may overlaps.  But Murakami is meticulous to distinguish what each character knows in their story line versus what he or she speculates or does not know.  Taking all in, 1Q84 is a magical read.

Readers who are used to the author’s first person writing style may feel a need for a certain adjustment when reading 1Q84.  The twin stories are written from the third person perspective, with main characters’ thoughts written in italic and in a first person style.  It does feel odd in the beginning.  But this works better than some authors who switch the alternate stories in first person style whereby confusion may become a major hindrance to reading.  Among the three books of 1Q84, I would rank book two high in action and entertainment value.  Because of that, book three seems a bit slow.  It feels as though Murakami is trying very hard to control the pace, to impart upon us this sense of anxiety and lost, danger and death – slowly and steadily.  As always, patience readers are rewarded accordingly.  I don’t see a need to rush through the plots.  There is a reason and time for everything in life.

I would say 1Q84 is perhaps Murakami’s most polished work to date.  The hard copy design is beautiful.  On the front cover, there is a picture of a woman and at the back, a man.  On alternate pages, the page number and the book title is reversely printed.  Even the inlaid pictures of the moons are reversed comparing the ones in front and the ones at the back.  After finished reading the book, I cannot think of a better art design than this.  I have read 1Q84 in English and I am looking forward to reading the same story in Chinese.  I could be wrong to think that the Chinese version may be closer to the original Japanese version.  But I am keen to see the difference between the two – English translation versus Chinese translation.

Similar to my previous book summary entries, I am going to share some of the favorite quotes I found in the book.  I am often careful in not giving out too much spoilers.  If you intend to read the book, you may stop here and return to see if these are your favorite quotes too.

A while back, my friend and I had a lengthy discussion on practice versus talent.  On page 65, Murakami talks about talents versus instinct.

You can have tons of talent, but it won’t necessarily keep you fed.  If you have sharp instincts, though, you’ll never go hungry.

As for the next paragraph, I like the way the author describes the situation when communication breaks down.

[She] fell silent again, but this time it did not seem deliberate.  She simply could not fathom the purpose of his question or what prompted him to ask it.  His question hadn’t landed in any region of her consciousness.  It seemed to have gone beyond the bounds of meaning, sucked into permanent nothingness like a lone planetary exploration rocket that has sailed beyond Pluto.

“Never mind,” he said, giving up. “It’s not important.”  It had been a mistake even to ask [her] such a question.

I do enjoy reading some of the dialogues between two people.  Here is one on a dog.

“How’s Bun?” she asked.

“She’s fine,” [he] answered.  Bun was the female German shepherd that lived in his house, a good-nature dog, and smart, despite a few odd habits.

“Is she still eating her spinach?” [she] asked.

“As much as ever.  And with the price of spinach as high as it’s been, that’s no small expense!”

“I’ve never seen a German shepherd that liked spinach before.”

“She doesn’t know she’s a dog.”

“What does she think she is?”

“Well, she seems to think she’s a special being that transcends classification.”

“Superdog?”

“Maybe so.”

“Which is why she likes spinach?”

“No, that’s another matter.  She just likes spinach.  Has since she was a pup.”

“But maybe that’s where she gets these dangerous thoughts of hers.”

“Maybe so.”

The next paragraph – I believe – is not written by Murakami and is taken from a book called Sakhalin Island by a Russian writer, Anton Chekhov.  I find it a beautiful read.  And its style blends well into the story.

… The roaring sea is cold and colourless in appearance, and the tall grey waves pound upon the sand, as if wishing to say in despair: “Oh God, why did you create us?”  This is the Naibuchi river the convicts can be heard rapping away with axes on the building work, while on the other, far distant, imagined shore, lies America … to the left the capes of Sakhalin are visible in the mist, and to the right are more capes … while all around there is not a single living soul, not a bird, not a fly, and it is beyond comprehension who the waves are roaring for, who listens to them at nights here, what they want, and, finally, who they would roar for when I was gone.  There on the shore one is overcome not by connected, logical thoughts, but by reflections and reveries.  It is a sinister sensation, and yet at the very same time you feel the desire to stand for ever looking at the monotonous movement of the waves and listening to their threatening roar.

How would you write about ‘time’?  Here is the author’s attempt in describing time.  That is a pretty interesting way to observe time and us.

[He] knew that time could become deformed as it moved forward.  Time itself was uniform in composition, but once consumed, it took on a deformed shape.  one period of time might be terribly heavy and long, while another could be light and short.  Occasionally the order of things could be reversed, and in the worst cases order itself could vanish entirely.  Sometimes things that should not be there at all might be added onto time.  By adjusting time this way to suit their own purposes, people probably adjusted the meaning of their existences.  In other words, by add such operations to time, they were able – but just barely – to preserve their own sanity.  Surely, if a person had to accept the time through which he had just passed uniformly in the given order, his nerves could not bear the strain.  Such a life, [he] felt, would be sheer torture.

Through the expansion of the brain, people had acquired the concept of temporality, but they simultaneously learned ways in which  to change and adjust time.  In parallel with their ceaseless consumption of time, people would ceaselessly reproduce time that they had mentally adjusted.

I like the way Murakami describes reality.

… where I’m living is not a storybook world.  It’s the real world, full of gaps and inconsistencies and anticlimaxes.

And here is the most cryptic message of all.  I think that has something to do with beliefs.

If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.

1Q84 has also quoted Karl Jung.  I now recall that quite a few of my favorite books quote Karl Jung.

It is as evil as we are positive … the more desperately we try to be good and wonderful and perfect, the more the Shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive … The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the Shadow descends to hell and becomes the devil.  For it is just as sinful from the standpoint of nature and of truth to be above oneself as to be below oneself.

Within the story of 1Q84, Tengo is given a task of ghostwriting a fantasy book written by a seventeen years old girl.  In that story, there are two moons.  Tengo’s editor keeps on telling him that when writing something out of ordinary, more details need to be added so that readers are able to visualize.  But how?  Later on when that story diffuses into the main story, here is Murakami’s take in describing a scene with two moons.  He further infuses this symbolic vision into some of the characters, making this paragraph read more like a prophecy.

No doubt about it: there were two moons.

One was the moon that had always been there, and the other was a far smaller, greenish moon, somewhat lopsided in shape, and much less bright.  It looked like a poor, ugly, distantly related child that had been foisted on the family by unfortunate events and was welcomed by no one.  But it was undeniably there, neither a phantom nor an optical illusion, hanging in space like other heavenly bodies, a solid mass with a clear-cut outline.  Not a plane, not a blimp, not an artificial satellite, not a papier-mâché moon that someone made for fun.  It was without a doubt a chunk of rock, having quietly, stubbornly settled on a position in the night sky, like a punctuation mark placed only after long deliberation or a mole bestowed by destiny.

Here is one on hope and trials.

Wherever there’s hope there’s a trial … Hope, however, is limited, and generally abstract, while there are countless trials, and they tend to be concrete.

I also happen to like how Murakami describes clouds.

The clouds continued to scud off toward the south.  No matter how many were blown away, others appeared to take their place.  There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north.  Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothes in thick, gray uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.

Finally, a quote by Tolstoy, another Russian writer.

All happiness is alike, but each pain is painful in its own way.

2 thoughts on “1Q84 By By Haruki Murakami – A Magical Read”

  1. Like Wilfrid, I was absolutely enthralled throughout my read of 1q84. I think that, generally speaking, Murakami’s masterpiece is far richer in themes and references and questions and suggestions, than most reviewers on the web seem ready to get into. To name just a few: the role of Janacek’s Sinfonietta, the Buss’ und Reu’! of BWV 244, The Tale of the Heike, or the inborn disposition of the Gilyak who would rather not use a road even if there is one – all of these and many more are conveniently forgotton by a load of reviewers writing off 1q84 as merely “too long”.
    By the way: Wilfrid speaks of “Light” and “Shadow” when referring to the Murakami concepts of Maza and Dohta. I would suggest one listens to any native Japanese speaker pronouncing the English words “mother” and “daughter”, and from this, fathom what more could be hidden in Murakami’s encitingly elusive vocabulary.

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