Murakami Haruki is one of Japan’s greatest novelists, and, according to The Guardian, one of the greatest writers living in the world today. He was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 2012, only to be beaten by China’s Mo Yan. This literary smackdown certainly did not do anything to help cool the tensions which have been bubbling between Japan and China over the past year.
One of Murakami’s best known works in the United States–a staple in most Japanese literature programs–is Norwegian Wood, a deeply nostalgic book about love, loss, youth, and sexuality in 1960s Japan.
1Q84 takes place twenty years later, in the 1980s, which witnessed the faltering of Japan’s miraculous post-World War II economic boom.
The English translation of 1Q84 is a massive tome of a book, spanning 925 pages and weighing enough to give even the seasoned reader wrist cramps. In retrospect, I am particularly glad I read 1Q84 on my Kindle. I checked out the ebook from my local library before leaving on Christmas holiday. Only after a week of concerted reading, and moving slowly percent by percent closer to completion, did I think to look up the length of the print edition online. I am glad I did not realize the length of the book before beginning, because it may have deterred me.
1Q84 was published as three books in Japan, while the American publisher decided to roll them all into one volume. Read as the author intended, 1Q84 proves to be a far more manageable endeavor.
Now, on to what the book is actually about.
1Q84 is the gripping, yet bizarre love story of two childhood classmates–Aomame and Tengo. Twenty years have passed since they parted ways after grade school, and, as one would expect, much has changed in their lives.
Aomame–whose name literally means “green peas”–works as a personal trainer, massage therapist, and self-defense teacher. Through this work and a dark past, she becomes acquainted with the Dowager, a wealthy, powerful woman from an elite family. Acting on their shared hatred for men who viciously abuse their wives, Aomame begins working as an assassin for the Dowager.
A world away, Tengo lives a quiet existence as a cram school math teacher and aspiring author. Tengo’s mentor, a dark horse editor named Komatsu, comes to him one day and asks him to join in a literary scheme of a dubious nature. Komatsu has come across a deeply intriguing, but horribly written manuscript by a seventeen-year-old girl. Convinced it could be a smashing hit, Komatsu challenges Tengo to rewrite the book in secret.
This simple act, however, begins to alter the fabric of reality in unexpected ways. Both Tengo and Aomame start to experience subtle differences in the world around them, and realize that they are now living in an alternate reality–one which Aomame dubs 1Q84.
The “Q” in 1Q84 stands at once for the word “question” and the romanization of the Japanese sound for the letter nine (Kyu). An open reference to George Orwell’s 1984, 1Q84 also delves into the psychology of utopian cults with totalitarian ideologies through the imagined organization “Sakigake.”
Sakigake is pattered after the actual Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (founded in 1984), which was responsible for the Sarin gas terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. What originally begins as a utopian farming community transforms into a fanatical religious sect when fantastical, but elusive beings called “the Little People” assume control.
It is ultimately this cult Sakigake which brings the parallel universes of Tengo and Aomame crashing together.
Considering 1Q84‘s girth, Murakami manages to maintain the reader’s interest with a surprisingly slim cast of characters. Yet, these characters form the heart and soul of 1Q84. Rather than going for breadth, Murakami aims for depth, painting his characters in microcosmic, at times voyeuristic, detail. They offer an intimate study of the human psyche, sexuality, and daily Japanese life and culture as understood by Murakami. At the same time, it is attachment to these same characters which compels the reader to slog on to the last page.
1Q84‘s plot reads like a hurricane, shifting between wind swells which send the plot in unexpected directions and calm patches in the eye of the storm. All the while Murakami guides readers with a steadfast hand and clear, concise prose interspersed with timely description.
1Q84 is an utterly original work, and a great read for anyone looking to for something a bit off the beaten path of commercial and book club fiction. Suspenseful and deep, yet written with an approachable voice, Murakami also has a lot to teach aspiring writers.