I begin my series of book reviews with my all-time favorite. It was a stroke of luck that I selected 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami from among so many other worthy volumes awaiting their next reader in the Waterstones Greenwich book shop that day. My reasoning behind this particular choice? Simply because it was the heaviest, thickest volume I could find on the shelf and, being the impoverished student I was at the time and therefore unable to afford many luxuries, I decided to treat myself to something long and demanding, the sort of book that would last me a while. Little did I know that that choice would open a gateway. By which I mean, not only would that choice function as my introduction to an author who would place among my top favorites, but more importantly it led to the inspiration behind my own first work of fiction. But that’s for another day.
Despite my deep love of Japanese culture – in particular, the appreciation of craftsmanship, of nature, of one’s neighbors – I had yet to delve into the world of Japanese literature when I first encountered 1Q84. No, not even manga [ although I’d count myself among those who’ve watched more anime than most …. I know, I know. It’s my guilty pleasure ] . Haruki Murakami was my first. And I went on to read many more of his novels.
Much, I suspect, like any work by an author from elsewhere - meaning from outside one’s own native home - it takes some appreciation of that author’s heritage to fully realize the depth of their work. This, I believe holds true for 1Q84. Had I not been so invested in learning about Japanese culture priorly, including countless hours spent viewing documentaries, learning the alphabet(s), preparing traditional cuisine, I think the significance of the novel might have been lost on me. I evidence this by the reviews I received from those to whom I leant my copy - they were less than impressed. Only by keeping in mind the tradition of narrative and the mystique of folklore in Japan can the reader - at least I hope - be more accepting of the strangeness and happenstance which is central to this stupefying novel.
But I digress. Let’s begin with the title. 1Q84. Acute. Intense. Alight with intrigue. Before you’ve even opened the cover flap [ a gorgeous matte black with white and red detailing using a minimalist butterfly wing insignia on my English, UK version ] you’re already titillated by one simple question: “What could this book possibly be about?” And even at the end of the third novel in the series, you may still be asking that same question, or at the very least, “What the heck just happened?”
This novel begins by introducing our heroine, Aomame, stuck in a traffic jam on the elevated Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway, listening to classical music on the FM stereo in the back of a soundproofed black cab, dressed in a tailored Junko Shimada suit, on her way to murder a businessman. So basically, she’s a serious badass. Comparable to Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium series (my second favorite), she’s a slender and promiscuous assassin hell bent on brining abusive men to justice while daylighting as a personal trainer. She’s mysterious, unconventional, a loner, and utterly compelling. Like, I would want to be her. And if you’re into strong female leads, like I am, then you’re in luck because you’ve got more than one in this novel. The Dowager, the wealthy woman behind Aomame’s ‘jobs’, runs a safe house for abused women. And you’re going to fall in love with her butterfly garden. Even Fuka-Eri, the unusual 17-year-old dyslexic author of “Air Chrysalis”, is something of a prophet. She may come off as being withdrawn or apathetic, but her backstory proves she’s anything but weak.
At this point you may be asking, “What is 1Q84?” Is it science fiction? Dystopian fantasy? A twist on folklore? All the above? Despite some poor reviews claiming the trilogy is full of ‘filler’ material, lacking narrative beyond the sum of its parts, too erotic, numbing, to list a few choice adjectives, I honestly see this book as written with intense focus and attention to detail, linking character identity to the space – namely Tokyo, 1984, with only a few deviations in setting. The emphasis in this story is often on Being with the character in his or her place, rather than moving the narrative along to the next sequence. And herein lies so much of the difference between Murakami’s work – and Japanese art in general – and what we’re much more accustomed to in western works of art and literature. Take American comics for example. They are driven by action-to-action sequences, with the frames clustered (or cluttered) with movement and words and, well, action. It’s a device fitting for our goal-oriented culture. But compare this to manga and even to ukiyo-e prints and traditional Japanese arts which feature transitions rarely seen in the west, namely aspect-to-aspect transitions, in which the spaces between and around the actions are equally as valued. Images of setting establish a tone, evoke a mood, make the viewer or the reader feel a certain way.
Aspect-to-aspect categorization functions almost like an interlude, drawing attention to the sense of space whilst simultaneously embodying, once again, that Japanese cultural essence. Appreciation of the changing seasons [ hanami - flower viewing ] and smells [ kodo – way of the fragrance] , to the arranging of the tokonoma [ prayer alcove ] in traditional homes, reflects the Japanese spirit of being there now, appreciating the full space, the light, the setting, the details. Although this embodiment of presence can be linked to the Buddhist tradition in many ways, it translates easily into the arts to this day. One Japanese creator who exemplifies this aspect-to-aspect model in his work is the manga artist Tsutomu Nihei of Blame!, Biomega and Knights of Sidonia fame. Just search his name in Google Images and you’re struck by desolate cityscapes, perilous drops into blackness beside otherworldly structures, high contrast views stretching to the horizon of some all but abandoned world. In 50% of the images on the first few pages not a soul is present, or if they are they are insignificantly small within the world Nihei has created around them. If not for these intentional block inserts specifically lacking in any action his work would ultimately relinquish much of the essence of his created universes: isolated, layered, and otherworldly.
To really get a sense of setting and space, a feeling of really, truly being inside the story, you need to feel those underlying details. Murakami handles this expertly and on countless occasions. For instance, in his descriptions of the mossy green of the second moon; the wind on the elevated expressway, while Aomame is overlooking the billboard with the tiger holding the gas hose; all the way to the small girl locked in the earthen store house with the dead, blind goat. Murakimi takes his time with the transitions, settling in to each scene until you’re sitting right beside Aomame, Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Like you, the reader, are following them in real time. The duration of this three-book series lends itself to that feeling of following the action, as well, minute by minute. It’s a dense work, with heavy backstories and more than occasional eroticism, but it’s also gentle in its handling the of the narrative. Murakami’s writing flows alongside the pace of the novel, as if he’s seeing Aomame and Tengo alive in his mind and he’s merely transcribing their story as he’s watching it.