(Harvill Secker, £20 / £14.99 stg hardback)
Task: review 63-year-old Japanese novelist’s new 1300 page three volume opus in 700 words, outlining the plot, introducing the main characters, and giving your considered appraisal, in the overall context of his oeuvre. Okay, here goes.
At heart this picaresque novel has quite a simple narrative arc: boy and girl meet; they fall in love; they lose each other; they find each other again. However, this story line comes freighted with several extravagantly serpentine and surreally bizarre add-ons.
Set in Tokyo over eight months in 1984, the first two books alternate between the perspectives of that now adult boy, Tengo, a portly maths tutor who secretly agrees to rewrite 17-year-old girl Fuka-Eri’s addictive but inelegantly written novella about a commune of leprechauns, which is then submitted for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, wins it, and becomes a bestseller; and that now grown-up girl, Aomane, whose embarrassing running joke name literally translates as ‘Green Bean’, a female gym instructor who, with a touch of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, avenges victims of domestic violence. Angry at the suicide of a childhood friend who married a brute, she carries out assassinations on behalf of The Dowager, a widow in charge of a women’s refuge.
Like much of Pynchon, nearly all Murakami's novels play with the device of a parallel universe into which characters can slip through cracks or portals, and here Aomane, stuck in a traffic jam while on her way to kill a wife-beating oil broker with an ice pick, abandons her taxi and descends an emergency staircase leading down from a city expressway to find things aren’t quite the same. Seeing a news report about the construction of a joint American-Soviet moon base, and then a second moon in the sky, she deduces that she has stumbled into a different dimension, which she christens 1Q84. The ‘Q’ may stand for ‘Question’, although the title is also a pun on Orwell’s own dystopia, playing on the identical pronunciation of the Japanese number ‘nine’ and the English letter ‘Q’.
Meanwhile Fuka-Eri, it transpires, has fled a religious commune resembling the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and about which Murakami has written previously in 2000’s nonfiction Underground, arguing that the attack should not be dismissed as the madness of a tiny brainwashed minority, but rather symptomatic of the problems of mainstream Japanese society.
The various plot strands being to interconnect because the leader of Fuka-Eri’s Sakigake cult is suspected of raping young girls, and when a distraught 10-year-old turns up at the women’s refuge, Aomane gets a new mission. Also, the success of Fuka-Eri’s novella makes it increasingly difficult for Tengo to keep his ghostwriting fraud a secret. Add to all this the fact that the work of the Little People is not confined to Fuka-Eri’s little book, but starts appearing in the world of 1Q84 as well. But the chief connecting thread is the love between the male and female leads. As 10-year-old classmates, they briefly held hands. Two decades later, Aomane tells a friend that she has never loved anyone expect this long lost boy. Her confidante responds: “If it were me, I’d do everything I could to locate him.”
Book Three was published a year after the previous instalments in Japan, and may feel like a bit of a letdown, depending as it does on synopsis and recapitulation. It shifts to a third point-of-view in the shape of Ushikawa, a repulsive private detective on the hunt for Aomame, whose pursuit of his prey can seem like an excuse to summarise what preceded it. It does, however, contain the tactful but moving finale, where Tengo and Aomane are reunited in a playground.
If all of the above interests you, but you are wary of wading into a tome of such epic proportions (‘Who has time to read fiction of this length, given the busy modern lifestyles of this day and age?’ etc.), you might like to try ‘Town of Cats’, a stand-alone sampler which first appeared in The New Yorker as a discrete short story rather than an extract, but has now, with a few minor amendations, been fully incorporated into 1Q84. Recounting a day when Tengo visits his dementia-suffering father, whom he hasn’t seen in years and whose paternity he ultimately doubts, it is as bleakly uncanny as anything in Kafka, but tells some very human truths. Of its nature, it is also shorter than the bracing journey of 1Q84.
First published in The Sunday Independent.