November 2011

Arts & Letters

‘1Q84’ books 1, 2 and 3 by Haruki Murakami

By Lian Hearn
'1Q84', Books 1, 2 and 3, By Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, 952pp; $39.95

Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island both became bestsellers last year in Japan after featuring in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – such is the author’s influence. Perhaps Murakami chose these artists to suggest traditions of Central Europe, for one of the themes of 1Q84 is the enchanted forest, a fairytale world of two moons and Little People, where a boy and girl must find each other.

The boy is Tengo, the girl Aomame – like many people in the novel, they have unusual names. As children they were outsiders. Aomame was brought up in a sect called the Witnesses. Tengo’s father was a licence fee collector for the national public broadcaster. Now approaching 30, they are both engaged in amoral acts. Aomame is a hit-woman; Tengo, a cram school teacher and aspiring writer, has been persuaded to polish up a novel, Air Chrysalis, by the beautiful young Fuka-Eri, so it will win a famous prize for young writers.

Murakami, who investigated Aum Shinrikyo – the sect responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – recently said, “The wall separating people who would commit a crime from those who wouldn’t is flimsier than you might think.” His complex interlinking plot allows him to examine closely the art of the novelist as well as religious sects, belief in God, morality and ethics and the nature of reality. There’s also a lot of sex, medicinal, mechanical and mystical. But nothing is as it seems. Actions (murder, child rape) may appear reprehensible, even shocking, but turn out to be something else. And behind every operator is another manipulator. Who is responsible? Who will shoulder morality? As one reviewer says of Air Chrysalis, “the author leaves us with a mysterious pool of question marks.”

This is the first of Murakami’s novels written entirely in the third person, giving alternate chapters to Tengo and Aomame, and adding a third point of view in Book 3 with the sleazy but compelling private investigator Ushikawa. The narrative is perhaps less mesmerising than in the first-person novels, but the characterisation is much richer and the settings – the conservatory of Aomame’s mentor filled with butterflies; the Hotel Okura where “a large foreign couple loom like an old king and queen past their prime”; the care home where Tengo’s father lies in a coma – are unforgettable.

There are occasional irritations: images slide suddenly into banality, the familiar obsessions with beautiful ears and mysterious cats appear, along with endless telephone conversations involving intense staring at handsets and pressing of temples. But if you are a Murakami fan you overlook these. Murakami’s great strength is his absolute trust in the images offered by his unconscious and his unflinching loyalty to them. The imagery of dreams may look banal in the light of day but it’s our only chance of glimpsing the true picture. These unsettling glimpses into the myriad layers of reality are the reward of 1Q84.

Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn is a writer based in Goolwa, South Australia. She is the author of the Tales of the Otori series, which has sold more than 4 million copies. Lian Hearn is the pen-name used by children’s author Gillian Rubinstein.

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