1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Hypnotic but meandering…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

For reasons known only to the publishers, 1Q84 was published in two parts in the UK, one week apart. Books 1 & 2 were published together and Book 3 one week later. My understanding is that all three books were published simultaneously in the US. Also, the first two books were translated by Jay Rubin, while the third book had a different translator, Philip Gabriel. Go figure! Hence my review, which was written at the time of UK publication, also reads as two parts…

* * * * * * *

1q84This very long book has a hypnotic quality that led me to keep reading on despite my fears from early on that there was in fact very little substance under the excellent prose (and equally excellent translation by Jay Rubin). Sadly, by the end I felt that the book, like the lives of the protagonists within it, is somewhat shallow and empty.

Aomame is an assassin, dealing out fatal punishment to men who have mistreated women. Tengo is an aspiring novelist who is approached to rewrite a manuscript seemingly written by a young girl Fuka-Eri. The manuscript tells the tale of fantastical creatures spinning the mysterious Air Chrysalis; and as Tengo gets to know Fuka-Eri he begins to suspect that the story is based on truth, related to Fuka-Eri’s upbringing in a cult-like commune. Meanwhile Aomame begins to doubt her own reality as the world around her shows subtle changes (and some less subtle, like the big give-away of an extra moon), triggered by the theme tune that runs through the book: Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta.

The author touches on many themes: love and loneliness, good and evil, illusion and reality, even whether literature can alter real life. None of the themes, however, is fully developed and, for me at least, he seems to have very little new to say about any of them. The book meanders on between the two separate but linked storylines of Aomame and Tengo. Both characters are strangely passive – the story happens to them (but, oh so very slowly) and, like puppets, they acquiesce without struggle in fulfilling their seemingly pre-ordained roles.

There are elements of fantasy in the book, but again these are not fully developed. It seemed to me that the author is trying to keep a foot firmly in both camps of reality and fantasy and as a result fails to deal with either satisfactorily.

Credit: Lerms via www.deviantart.com
Credit: Lerms via deviantart.com

I also struggled to understand why the author felt it necessary to cover the same ground again and again, with constant repetitions and reiterations. This layering effect may have worked better if each subsequent layer added something to our (or the characters’) understanding, but that didn’t seem to me to be the case. I found myself wishing that a tough editor had cut out about half of the novel and forced the author to apply more focus – the slightness of the storyline seems drowned under the sheer wordiness of the book.

In summary, I found the first two books rather overlong and unfocused. However the prose is very good, making this a magnetic if not wholly satisfactory read, the translation is excellent and I was interested enough to go on and read the final part, though with some trepidation. I hoped that the author might expand on some of the themes introduced earlier and reach a satisfying conclusion.

In the end, I enjoyed Book 3 significantly more. Aomame and Tengo are still looking for each other, while Ushikawa is trying to find Aomame on behalf of the Sakigake cult. The book now alternates amongst these three characters.

Haruki Murakami (Photo: www.theguardian.com)
Haruki Murakami
(Photo: theguardian.com)

The development of Ushikawa as one of the principal characters works well, I feel. One of my reservations about the first volume was that both the lead characters were very passive – Ushikawa is more pro-active and this helps to move the somewhat flimsy plot along a bit more. By the end even Aomame and Tengo seem finally willing to act to take control of their own lives – a very welcome development, if long overdue. The conclusion is partially satisfying in that it provides a resolution for some of the characters; however, it still leaves some rather important plot elements hanging and some characters whom we had spent time getting to know are quietly dropped as if the author had lost interest in them.

Rather strangely, there is a different translator for Book 3, Philip Gabriel, and while still very good, I didn’t feel he matched the excellence of Jay Rubin. Rubin’s rendering was so flowing that I mainly forgot I was reading a translation, whereas I was often reminded of this in Book 3 when Gabriel would use an awkward or very Americanised turn of phrase.

Overall, I still think the 3 books are seriously under-edited, would benefit from severe cutting of some of the unnecessary repetitions and fail to fully develop many of the themes that are touched on. However, the prose is very readable and the conclusion was rewarding enough that ultimately I am glad to have read them. I’m not convinced, though, that I’ll go on to read more of Murakami’s work. He did introduce me to Janáček’s music, though, and for that I remain profoundly grateful.

Amazon UK Link – Books 1 & 2
Amazon UK Link – Book 3
Amazon US Link

37 thoughts on “1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

  1. FictionFan – It sounds like an interesting premise, but I know what you mean about books taking too long to tell a story. Perhaps it’s my academic background, but I prefer a ‘get to the point’ kind of novel. That said, I am embarrassingly under-read when it comes to Japanese fiction *blush of shame.* You’ve reminded me that I need to remedy that.

    • I’m starting up a petition to have a statutory limit of 250 pages per book! I’ve reached the stage where my heart sinks when I see the size of some of the bricks that come out – not many authors can carry off 900 pages!

  2. The professor would have probably died in the middle of the first book, I fear. I stand amazed yet again at your reading…concentration!

    As strange as this may sound, the book does sound interested. Is it a bit like a dream?

    The author looks great, and he chose really cool names for his characters!

    Americanised turn of phrase… 😛

  3. Wow! I can’t believe someone finished 1Q84!! The other day I saw the three books together in the library and I shuddered at the idea of reading, how many pages are they? 1000? of Murakami’s meandearing stories. His prose is brilliant, but his stories always inch along and become boring. His books are definitely not for me…

    • Yep, over 1000, I think – and for most of them nothing actually happens! This was the first Murakami I read, and I suspect also the last. I totally agree – the prose is great, but it’s all tooooo slow.

    • I thought the book was fantastic! It took me awhile, yes, but only because it was long – not because I didn’t enjoy it! 1Q84 was my first Murakami, and it’s what hooked me.

      • It seems to me that he’s one of these authors that you either ‘get’ or you don’t. Sadly, it didn’t work for me but I’d never try to put anyone off trying him – I’ve seen too many really enthusiastic reviews not to realise that not everyone agrees with my opinion of the book. Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

        • Of course everyone isn’t going to agree with you, but that’s why discussion is so great. I’ve had some angry comments on my Amazon reviews before, but I don’t take them to heart.

          If you haven’t read Norwegian Wood, I’d really recommend that one of his. It’s the only novel of his that doesn’t include the surreal elements, and honestly I like that better than when he does the half & half thing. Besides, it’s not a very long book; not a 1,000 page commitment XD

          • Haha! You should see some of the comments I get on reviews of political memoirs on Amazon! Not to mention Testament of Mary!

            I’ll add ‘Norwegian Wood’ to my maybe list – it doesn’t seem altogether fair to write him off on the basis of one book, I suppose, and those words ‘not a very long book’ make it sound much more appealing… 😉

  4. My husband read the book and was left with a similar feeling. Then one of my writing group members thought about reading 1Q84 but then overheard someone in a bookstore saying “I hated 1Q84. If I had to do it all over again, I’d just reread ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” So my friend took this eavesdropped advice. He then wrote a “review” for the DogpatchWritersCollective. Check it out and see what you think: http://dogpatchwriterscollective.com/2012/03/07/at-the-bottom-of-a-well-and-on-top-of-the-world/

    • Great review that makes the book sound both weird and interesting. However…it was all the great Murakami reviews that sucked me into 1Q84 in the first place…

      I think, somewhat to my sorrow, that I like to be able to categorise books as either realism or fantasy. Crossovers never really work for me, and it seems that’s what Murakami specialises in. It always seems like a lazy option (probably unfairly) that a writer writes himself into a place where his characters get stuck and then resolves it by introducing something fantastical. And yet when it’s too hard to create a complete fantasy world then…just go back to reality. It always leaves me feeling cheated and annoyed, even when it’s well written. My reaction to Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being was similar for those same reasons (though it wasn’t nearly as well written as the Murakami).

      • Interesting. I like your analysis. I also think it’s good that you know what you like and aren’t afraid to admit it. Does “once bitten, twice shy” refer to your situation with Murakami?

        Perhaps it’s best to stick with authors that don’t leave you with hives, a fever, or open wounds–no matter how eloquently inflicted.

        • It’s one of the benefits of writing reviews, I’ve found, that I’m much clearer in my own mind about why I like or don’t like certain things. I must admit I’m not super-keen to try more Murakami, but so many people are so enthusiastic about him that I do wonder if I might like some of his other stuff better. Hmm…he’s a definite maybe…but not quite a definite.

          Have you read anything by him?

          • No, I haven’t. I do have The Wind-up Bird Chronicle on my shelf. It’s been calling me for some time. But I tend to read writers that I want to influence my own writing. Perhaps I’m missing something by not reading him.

            • Certainly his prose is great, even in translation. It looks like it’s Jay Rubin who translated that one – I thought his translations of Books 1 & 2 of 1Q84 were superb – really seamless.

  5. I have yet to read Murakami, but I doubt this is where I’ll start. You’re right: not many authors can pull off a book of this length, but when you get halfway through, it’s difficult to quit, at least for me. I want to see if they’ll be able to tie things up well.
    That being said, I do enjoy dreamlike writing. It’s been years since I read it, so I don’t remember all the details, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled had a sort of haziness to it that I really enjoyed, even though it didn’t really go anywhere.

    • I certainly wouldn’t want to put anyone off trying him – the prose is excellent and it is a very hypnotic style. People who like him seem to really love him – but in the end I just felt the style and skill couldn’t hide that there wasn’t much underneath.

      The only Ishiguro I’ve read is The Remains of the Day, and it left me in the same state of being underwhelmed while admiring the skill.

      • If I recall correctly, because it’s been years since I read it, I loved how the Remains of the Day spiraled inward, so that the reader could begin to see how the narrator’s life was based on delusion. I thought it was masterful. I think Julian Barnes did a similar thing in his book, The Sense of an Ending.

    • A ‘not to be read shelf’ – I like that idea! That could be the solution to my TBR problem! 😉

      It is a huge book, but I found it didn’t take for ever to read – the quality of the prose made it flow well. But though I liked the writing it just left me feeling a bit ‘so what?’ in the end. That’s a pity about ‘Norwegian Wood’ since bdallmann has just about persuaded me to give it a try sometime… I’ll see. If a gap opens up in my ridiculous reading list I might try another Murakami someday, but I think he might be one of these authors you either like or you don’t…

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