Several years ago I was given 1Q84 as a birthday gift and it has been gathering dust on my shelves ever since. Now with my project of reading one important book from the Twentieth or Twenty-first Century every month its time had come. It is a large book, 923 pages long, and as I discovered when I came to read it, really three books. The English language version has rolled the trilogy into one book.
What was I expecting? Having read two other books by Marukami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, I was expecting his narrating voice, and because of the title I was expecting something a little futuristic or dystopic. That is not quite what I found. Let me say it is a handsome book, with the cover (designed by Chipp Kidd) showing a woman’s face peering through a partly transparent cover with words 1Q84 in large caps. The paper is fine and the type-face, new to me, is Minion. Altogether a classy affair, and a very handsome gift. But as a reading experience? For me it was a lead balloon.
Marukami has structured alternating chapters from the point of view of different characters. We alternate between Aomame, the heroine’s story and Tengo, the hero’s story. And under all the palaver about cults and double moons and Little People what we have here is essentially a story about star crossed lovers and their mazy path to finding each other again after a brief encounter in childhood. And the third voice, the investigator Ushikawa, who has a say in the later chapters in Book Three is the one who finally brings them together. As he investigates we learn about the dowager and her bodyguard Tamaru, as we have already done in Book One, for there is a great deal of repetition in this book. Ushikawa himself has already shown up in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Aomame is not your usual young single woman (her name means ‘green peas’). A loner who has escaped from her cult- following parents at a young age, she is a martial-arts expect who has an instinctive knowledge of the body. She is also an assassin. But only in a good way; she kills men who have abused women. She steals up behind them and jabs a tiny sterile needle into the base of the brain. They die instantly and feel no pain. She works for the Dowager, a rich and extremely couth woman. Here they are having a meal together.
Tamaru rolled their meal in on a wagon. A professional chef had doubtless prepared the food, but it was Tamaru’s job to serve it. He plucked the bottle of white wine from its ice bucket and poured with practiced movements. The dowager and Aomame both tasted the wine. It had a lovely bouquet and was perfectly chilled. The dinner consisted of boiled white asparagus, salade Nicoise, a crabmeat omelet, a rolls and butter, nothing more. All the ingredients were fresh and delicious, and the portions were moderate. The dowager always ate small amounts of food. She used her knife and fork elegantly, bringing one tiny bite after another to her mouth like a small bird…Music played at a low volume – a Hayden cello concerto. That was another of the dowager’s favourites.
The other character whose point of view we experience is Tengo, a young man living alone and an aspiring writer. (Also skilled in martial arts.) He works as a maths teacher in a cram school. We hear a fair bit about his meals as well, also very healthy, if not as elegant as those of the dowager. His inciting other, the editor Komatsu, enlists him to do a rewrite of a book, Air Chrysalis, by Fuka-Eri a dyslexic seventeen-year old. ( If you want to know all about Air Chrysalis in a nutshell go to page 794 of Book 3). It emerges that she too is refugee from a cult and lives with the Professor. It also emerges she has dictated the book to the Professor’s daughter. Fuka-Eri is the one who tells the story of the Little People, the whimsical other worldly beings that come from the body of a dead goat. Their only words are ‘Ho Ho’. But they are still malign.
You can see where all this is heading to: horror cult stories, and it does. And of course, Aomame is given the brief to assassinate the Leader of the cult. Which she does (with his agreement).
Oh dear, it goes on and on. The little green moon next to the usual moon, to what purpose who knows. Aomame holed up in hiding reading Proust. Her meals. Her exercise regime. Too many digressions and all padded out to the max.
I came to dread having to read this book. One of the most objectionable aspects of it is Murakami’s sexism. His constant almost obsessive reference to women’s breasts and nipples. The main character’s described need to have casual sex and her friendship with the policewoman she meets on the pick-up. I didn’t want to know about her designer clothes or the kind of men she likes (middle-aged with receding hairlines). I just wanted to finish the book and for it all to be over.
For me it had the slightly arch aspect of some Japanese animated cinema plus a great deal of padding.
To read an amusing meeting between Anthony Trollope and 1Q84 go to Tony’s Reading List here