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…
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This 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.
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.
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.