Before I dive into the review of Haruki Murakami’s first of three books of “1Q84”, I’d like to talk a little about my experience with this author to give you some background on where I’m coming from.
I consider myself a avid reader, and have read many books over the course of my life, especially during my high school years. During that time, I happened to stumble on Murakami’s novel “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. I really enjoyed it, and ended up reading several of his other works after that. I used to visit book stores quite frequently and as many people tend to do, I’d read the marketing blurb on the back of various books, looking for something which caught my interest. Many of the other books just seemed like uninteresting or uncreative cookie-cutter stories, whereas there was something fresh and unique about his works.
I had originally selected his first novel without much relation to him being a Japanese author, and at that time I was only just beginning to get into Japanese language. At my interest in both grew, it got to the point where I was dreaming about how awesome it would be to read Murakami’s novels in their original Japanese form. Not only could I then read his latest novels which weren’t yet translated into Japanese, but I could also experience his surreal world directly – without the unavoidable filtering and biasing of a translator.
As a result, Haruki Murakami was one of the main factors in me deciding to ramp up my Japanese studying, especially in the areas of Kanji and reading in general. I eventually read “Kafka on the Shore” in Japanese before it was released in English, and though it took considerable time it was a very satisfying accomplishment.
So as you can imagine, when “1Q84”, a novel somehow connected to “1984” (one of my favorite books), was released in Japanese, I was extremely eager to journey again into Murakami’s world.
I hope you’ll excuse one more sidetrack before we get to the review proper. For those of you who haven’t read this author before or know little about him, I’ll give some additional background information.
To me, the beauty of Murakami’s works is how they take common everyday life and sprinkle in strange supernatural elements. These stories aren’t typically classified as traditional “fantasy” or “science fiction”, but rather simply as “fiction” (or “literature”) with an undefinable eerie atmosphere. Stylistically I feel Murakami is a cross between Steven King and Twilight Zone, though there are probably enough differences to warrant a stop to any such comparison.
The author himself is quite popular nowadays, having gained critical acclaim in Japan with his novel “Norwegian Wood”, published in 1987, which eventually was made into a movie in 2010. Ironically this book focuses on romance and lacks many of the mysterious elements that define his other fiction works. Murakami eventually moved on to become one of Japan’s top-selling novelists with many fans across the globe and translations in over 40 countries.
Truth be told, this is actually the second time I read 1Q84, book 1. The first time was around five years ago, around the time the book came out. Then a few months ago a coworker told me he had picked up this book but gave up partway through – he just didn’t get what was so interesting about it. My memory being what it is, I had forgot many of the details and couldn’t really make a strong argument about it’s merits. This, plus the fact that I have book 2 and 3 purchased and waiting to be read, prompted me to read the book again from the beginning. In my many years of reading novels as a hobby, this is the only time I’ve reread a book like this, in Japanese or English.
At last, we come to my thoughts on the book itself. This novel in many ways echoes themes from Murakami’s other novels, especially the idea of an alternate universe and surrealism that pervades cover to cover. There are also occasional references to animals, music, and cooking – three things appearing in some of his other works. There’s one weird element in particular that I was very found of. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read through the novel yet, but just say that it reminds me of a scene from another of my favorite stories, “Dhalgren”, by Samuel R. Delany.
At this point I can no longer refrain from discussing the weakest part about this novel – the overuse of blatant sexuality. I can appreciate a good sex scene if it involves two people who love one another and is integral to the story of the book, but here Murakami pulls no punches and proceeds to describe several sexual acts in unnecessary full detail, some of which involving people in a relationship that most would call ‘immoral’ by any normal standards. Sexual abuse and non-standard sexual acts are also mentioned several times. Here Murakami’s penchant for heavy comparisons goes overboard, and we end up with this one which I couldn’t get out of my mind for some time: “木の根っこみたい” (It was like a tree root). I won’t reveal exactly what was being described there and leave that up to your imagination. I want to avoid making any sweeping generalizations for any race, but I was not expecting this level of lewdness from a Japanese author. Come to think of it, this type of unrestrained sexuality is probably what helped make “Norwegian Wood” such a big hit.
My second time around reading this novel different from the first in two major ways. First, my Japanese ability had improved significantly (or so I’d like to think) so reading the book was not nearly as challenging or arduous. Second, in my recent past there was a period where I was thinking of becoming a writer and wrote several short stories and chapters of a novel, and even got some critique on the very helpful website Critique Cricle. Though my passion for writing has lessened significantly since, I still considering returning to writing as a hobby some day, and the knowledge I learned from that time has changed the way I view literature.
With my slightly honed sensibility towards fiction, I picked up on how Murakami relies heavily on metaphors and similes, like the “tree root” one mentioned above. After a time they become so frequent and extreme that they started becoming funny, and I wondered if there wasn’t a different, better way to express things. But like it or not, it’s clearly one defining aspect of his style.
The slow and irregular pacing of the story was its other biggest weak point. Rather than an action-packed chain of events that you’ll see in other novels or comic books, 1Q84 instead focuses more on daily life sprinkled with a few surreal events and plot twists. These are great when they appear, but soon after things slow down again, leaving you wanting more. Having said that, once you get pulled in to the basic premise of the story and the interrelated elements, it’s a bit easier to overcome these slow points. Murakami’s trademark surreal atmosphere wouldn’t work too well with a series of high-paced plot twists anyway.
This blog’s theme is Japanese study, so I’ll say a few points about the novel from the point of view of someone learning this language.
As it so happens, Murakami has also done translations of several works from English to Japanese, including the acclaimed classic “Great Gatsby”. His knowledge of English shows up in 1Q84 book 1 in the form of expressions that seem as if they were translated directly from English. For example, there is an phrase like “ホットケーキみたいに売れている” which literally means “Selling like hotcakes”. His heavy use of similes may also be due to influence from English literature. I did some research, including a post on Oshiete Goo here, and it looks like Murakami is well known for his English-like Japanese. This means that native English speakers learning Japanese will probably have an easier time reading his books in Japaense, though it also means you will learn less of authentic (or should I say ‘traditional’) Japanese culture from the experience. Haruki Murakami obtained his international fame by his works being more accessible to people of many countries, which may be in part because some of the elements of more traditional Japanese literature are less predominant.
Although Murakami does use a vocabulary which contains many descriptive words you’re unlikely to hear in daily life, I feel that his works do have significantly easier grammar and vocabulary than some other Japanese authors I’ve read. On the other hand, Murakami has chosen minimal use of Furigana, so unless the Kanji is very uncommon you’re unlikely to be told it’s reading. If you have learned a way to do quick Kanji lookup (using radicals, drawing the Kanji, or some other method) then you’ll survive, but otherwise this book could be a bit of a chore unless you Kanji repertoire is quite good. You could always get the Kindle version which allows word lookup with a single hold-touch.
Much of the book is comprised of conversations between the characters, which are fairly easy to follow and don’t contain too much advanced Japanese (with some exceptions). There is also a lot of inner dialog by the main characters which is very valuable for those training to think in Japanese. I enjoyed one part of the book that had detailed descriptions and terms related to the process of writing and editing a nove. These felt like they came straight from the author’s mouth and were interesting to learn.
A few sections of the book completely change gears into what I call “documentary mode” and give detailed reports of some other culture, organization, or event. The Japanese in these is extra difficult and in one case (it was an excerpt from another novel – you’ll know it when you come to it), I had to skip a few paragraphs because it was just too tough.
All in all, except for the “documentary” parts, the Japanese in this novel is quite manageable. It can be appreciated by anyone with a good understanding of Japanese grammatical basics and a lot of time and patience to look up words you aren’t familiar with. For me, since I’ve read several of his other books in Japanese my reading speed with his works surpasses that of any other authors’, though it is still not quite as fast as my native English speed. And yet, it’s still satisfying to burn through a few pages without having to look up tens of words. Surely, some of this is because I’ve read this book before and remember some of the expressions from the first time around.
Since I haven’t yet read book 2 and 3, I’ll reserve judgement on whether this book is a ‘masterpiece’ or simply an amalgam of interesting and mysterious themes thrown together. But if you can get past the frustrating pacing and unnecessary sexual elements, you might find yourself quite entertained with this moderately long (500+ page) book.
If I was reading only for entertainment, I would probably immediately move on to Book 2. But taking into consideration that I want to expand my knowledge of Japanese culture, literature, and the language itself, I feel it might be best for me to read some other authors’ works first, and then come back to Book 2 in a few months. I’m less worried about forgetting the basic story elements since I’ve read through it twice now.
I’d like to end this review with a paraphrased, translated quote from 1Q84 which nicely describes Murakami’s works and shows he is self-aware of the incomplete elements of his stories.
“An author’s job is not to solve problems, but merely present them for others to ponder.”
(Including this line, I wrote exactly 1984 words (:)