San Francisco Chronicle // 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday Oct. 30.

By Haruki MurakamiTranslated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip GabrielAlfred A. Knopf; 928 pages; $30.50

Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” is one of those rare novels that clearly depict who we are now and also offer tantalizing clues as to where literature may be headed. The title, of course, evokes George Orwell’s masterpiece “1984,” which is quite timely considering that Orwell is everywhere these days. Flip through this very newspaper and you may well find references to “Big Brother” and “thoughtcrime” and “Newspeak.” If “1Q84” is any indication, Murakami will one day prove to be just as much of a visionary.

“1Q84,” like Murakami’s other novels – among them “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore” – is a remarkable book in which outwardly simple sentences and situations snowball into a profound meditation on our own very real dystopian trappings.

The chapters here alternate between two story lines that slowly converge like parallel lines on the horizon. In one, a young woman named Aomame – which literally means “green peas” – works as a kind of demure assassin, taking revenge on men who have physically abused their wives. The other features Tengo, a former judo wrestler who teaches math and is haunted by an image from when he was a baby. We move gracefully between their two stories, and soon see that Aomane and Tengo knew each other as children. Their eventual reunion begins to feel inevitable but, in Murakami’s hands, never contrived.

When we first meet Aomame, in a scene reminiscent of the opening of Fellini’s film “8 1/2,” it’s 1984 and she is stuck in Tokyo traffic on her way to an important meeting. Her taxi driver recommends climbing down a set of emergency stairs and getting on the subway, which she does. In the process, however, something changes in the fabric of her reality. Her new world mirrors the one to which she had grown accustomed throughout her entire life, but she soon notices staggering physical changes around her.

“There were two moons in the sky – a small moon and a large one. They were floating there side by side. The large one was the usual moon that she had always seen. It was nearly full, and yellow. But there was another moon right next to it. It had an unfamiliar shape. It was somewhat lopsided, and greenish, as though thinly covered with moss.”
Aomame naturally questions her own sanity, but she gives the new world the name 1Q84. (In Japanese, the No. 9 has the same pronunciation as the letter Q in English.)

“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.”

All things considered, she handles the change pretty well.

“Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.”Meanwhile, Tengo’s story is equally fascinating. He aspires to be an author and takes on the job of ghostwriting a novella, titled “Air Chrysalis,” by a dyslexic teen named Fuka-Eri. He and his calculating editor plan to submit it for Japan’s biggest literary prize. As their scheme gets under way, against Tengo’s better judgment, the reader starts to see some similarities between Fuka-Eri’s fictional world and Aomame’s 1Q84. There’s also a strange religious cult lurking in the background, but its significance to Tengo’s efforts is difficult to discern.

Murakami clearly appreciates that Orwell matters now more than ever. “1984” serves as a kind of guiding light here, in large part because that novel seems to have predicted every element of our current surveillance state.

The term “Orwellian” has come to signify any form of technology capable of recording personal information and potentially used for invasive purposes, from ATMs to your Netflix queue or hacked cell phone. (The enormous contributions that the rest of Orwell’s wonderful oeuvre have made to our literary landscape have not received the same attention and, tragically, do not factor into our current usage of “Orwellian.”) What makes the world of “1984” so terrifying is how subtly it mirrors and mimics our own world. That’s also true of “1Q84.”

I’d be curious to know how Murakami’s yeoman translators Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel divided up the work – did one follow Aomame and the other Tengo? – because there are no noticeable bumps in the pristine and deceptively simple prose.

More than any author since Kafka, Murakami appreciates the genuine strangeness of our real world, and he’s not afraid to incorporate elements of surrealism or magical realism as tools to help us see ourselves for who we really are. “1Q84” is a tremendous accomplishment. It does every last blessed thing a masterpiece is supposed to – and a few things we never even knew to expect.

Update 11/28: This review was apparently reprinted in the Denver Post and San Antonio Express-News.