Haruki Murakami's tome on the subjugation of humanity by systems of its own creation makes it easy to see why his deeply humanist imagination makes him as popular as he is important.
1Q84: a brilliant and infuriating narrative
Haruki Murakami may be the most commercially successful, critically revered novelist in international literature, an achievement that could easily cause him a creative drought under the glare of expectation. It seems to have had the opposite effect. 1Q84 is his 12th novel and heralded by many as his masterpiece. Book 1 and Book 2 of the three-volume work were published in Japan in 2009 to great acclaim, selling a million copies in a month. Book 3 followed a year later. (The English translation put its readers through a relatively bearable wait of just a week). It is always gratifying when work of idiosyncratic distinction and ambition garners a mainstream audience, as much as it is fascinating to contemplate why that might be.
Murakami employs alternating protagonists in 1Q84, Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is an aspiring writer and maths teacher, Aomame is an exercise instructor and assassin employed by an eccentric dowager to bump-off men who abuse their wives. The dual narrative technique is something Murakami last employed in Hard Boiled Wonderland, and he has the ellipses, elegant concurrences and echoes afforded by parallel stories down to a fine art. For instance, Tengo's father was a TV licence fee-collector, who dragged his son from door to door every Sunday to watch him yelling at people who couldn't pay. Aomame was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, forced to endure similarly woeful hours of unwelcome house-calls. They shared a passing moment of intensity, a briefly held hand, at the age of 10, but haven't seen one another for 20 years. This is also the first time Murakami has written about a successful novelist and it is touching to read his autobiographical meditations on the conflicting worlds of the imagination and literary status. It even allows for some self-referential gags, as when Tengo's editor comments, "The overall plot is a fantasy, but the descriptive detail is incredibly real," at once capturing the novel within the novel and 1Q84 itself.
Most great novelists have several leitmotifs which they shuffle like a deck of cards between every set of covers. Murakami's novels tend to juxtapose the domestic (especially meal preparation) with sinister conspiracies and covert operations; popular culture and classical music; stories within stories; dreaming and wakefulness. He also has a nice line in humanising stock characters: the embattled lovers, the private detective, the jobless outsider, the ambiguous innocent, the mage-like figure who appears roughly two-thirds of the way through the narrative to explain the plot like a Star Trek villain.
The wide-eyed ingénue who communicates in gnomic fragments is portrayed in this case by Fuka-Eri, a 17-year-old schoolgirl whose short story, Air Chrysalis, is entered in a literary competition, spotted by the oleaginous editor, Komatsu, who enlists Tengo to rewrite the piece. It wins the contest and becomes a runaway bestseller. This wouldn't be a problem if it didn't also contain occult information fiercely protected by Sakigake, the cult Fuka-Eri has escaped from.
Both Aomame and Tengo, it transpires, have slipped into an alternative reality, a situation that reveals itself subtly at first, then definitively: the moon is accompanied by a second smaller, green moon; a schismatic section of Sakigake is linked to a violent showdown between police and followers, which explains the new measures of uniform and arms. Aomame reaches this world by taking a shortcut down an emergency escape stairway off a traffic-jammed motorway. Tengo appears to have reached the world of 1Q84 through his rewriting of Air Chrysalis, inadvertently angering Sakigake by giving away the secrets of their sinister "Little People", who may or may not exist. The novel within a novel also features two moons. The title invites comparisons to George Orwell's masterpiece, but parallels aren't easy to draw. On the surface, 1Q84 is a magic-realist love story that shares an alternative reality but in other ways is far removed from Orwell's cold novel of ideas. In 1Q84, the world has modulated, "like the switching of a track" and the changes tend to reflect the characters' inner turmoil; sort of a surrealist pathetic fallacy.
But Orwell's 1984 has been misappropriated in popular culture as shorthand for CCTV cameras and Murakami's paean is naturally more subtle, its echoes more interesting. Murakami's version of Big Brother is the Little People, who we first encounter crawling out of a young girl's mouth as she sleeps. They are two inches tall, but possess the ability to "wind themselves up" to two feet. The Little People, who come from a timeline bereft of morality are essentially stripped of motivation - they appear to be the force behind Sakigake, but we know nothing of their ultimate aims, nor, presumably do their followers. Whenever they appear they start to build a kind of chrysalis by drawing threads from the air. When complete, the chrysalis contains a shadow-version of one of the characters, a version of them without a soul. They are written with Murakami's customary deadpan brilliance, so convincing as to have crawled straight out of the reader's own unconscious.
As parallels go, this is something of a pun, and the real analogies run deeper. On receiving the Jerusalem Prize Murakami gave a passionate speech against the systems designed to protect us all too easily becoming that which destroys us. "I will always stand on the side of the egg ... We are all fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the system. To all appearances, we have no hope; the wall is too high and too strong."
As the leader of Sakigake states, "With me gone, the religion would lose its centripetal force. But once it is formed, a system takes on a life of its own." But while Orwell's novel is essentially pessimistic, Murakami leaves us with the hope hinted at in his above speech, the eggs in question being Tengo and Aomame, the will-they won't-they of their ever meeting. This is either idealised, Hollywood romanticism or the ultimate saving grace of humanity and if the religion-as-control stuff is a little heavy-handed, the absolute psychopathology of systems, the horror that results when we subject ourselves without question or reason, is as compellingly rendered as it has ever been.
This subjugation of humanity to structures of its own creation is arguably the subtext of Orwell's novel. That this fades somewhat into the background of 1Q84 is actually a virtue: Murakami is just as interested in a more general social commentary - the luxury condos crammed between seedy bedsits, the aspirations available to a certain class but not to others. Tengo visits his father, suffering from dementia and slowly dying in a sanatorium in a small coastal town in Chiba. Eventually he befriends his father's carers. Just as there seems to be no escape from the parallel world of 1Q84, dementia itself is a degenerative one way-journey, a cog that can only keep turning. Later, the disappearance of Tengo's older, married girlfriend is made more poignant by their scenes being by far the most intimate and beautifully written in the early chapters of the book. The realisation of motifs and metaphors in real, felt, human ways is profoundly affecting.
This isn't to say 1Q84 is without flaws - rather that it's roomy enough to accommodate them. Fantasy dialogue is usually overly reliant on exposition and when Murakami's characters aren't being themselves, they have a habit of sounding like Dan Brown extras:
""That's good news."
"Yes, it is good news, but something else happened which is not so good."
"Something not so good?""
One scene late in Book 3 has Ushikawa, a hapless but skilled detective, summarising the story so far at length. This captures everything brilliant and infuriating in a single image. From relatively early on characters think aloud about what happened in the previous chapter, talk to one another about what it might have meant. Why are there two moons? What is an air chrysalis? Are the sinister Little People real? On the other hand, there is no chance of your missing anything.
Indeed, his fiction works on a streamlined picaresque structure of tangential character histories and some of the finest writing here derives from flashbacks in which characters talk about themselves. In one narrative aside we learn that Professor Ebisuno, Fuka-Eri's guardian, had been close friends of the cult leader of Sakigake. He fills us in on the history along with his own disenchantment with their idealism: "Utopias don't exist anywhere in any world ... they take the circuits out of people's brains that make it possible for them to think for themselves ... I'm sure you realise there are plenty of people looking for exactly that kind of brain death."
As pleasurable as this is, the wider dialogue issues don't go away. At one point, "Fuka-Eri did not answer. She looked at Tengo with an expression that seemed to say, 'It's too soon to talk about that.'" which, indeed, it is, but we might have figured that out for ourselves; this oversteering of the reader has always been characteristic of Murakami's writing at its worst.
In recent years Murakami has written non-fiction about the nuclear disasters and earthquakes that have ravaged his native country. His engagement with the real bleeds into the encounters he gives us with the surreal. Stylistic points aside it is easy to see why his deeply humanist imagination makes him as popular as he is important. Unafraid of combining the everyday with the philosophical, the unconscious with the mundane, he is ambitious enough to tackle great themes, substituting the acceptance of easy answers with the consolation of human individuality and, let's come right out and say it, love. Whether or not they become a global phenomenon, every country could do with a writer like that.
Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.