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Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 (1Q84)

I have to admit to liking John Cusack films and to liking, in particular, Grosse Point Blank. The basis of that film is that John Cusack plays, as usual, a lovable but slightly oddball character. In this case, he is going to his ten year high school reunion where he will meet his girlfriend of ten years ago and then…, well you know what will happen. The slight twist is that, despite, being so nice, the Cusack character is a professional killer. Professional killers do not figure strongly in literary novels (though, of course, they do in thrillers.) I do not read thrillers so I do not know whether there are nice professional killers in these works but, of course, this genre, if there is a professional killer genre, started many years ago and was particularly portrayed in Westerns. There were the bad guy professional killers, killing anyone for money and usually destined to meet their fate at the hand of the hero and there were the good guy professional killers, those who were after the bad guys. Professional killer Westerns started to get morally ambiguous with Sam Peckinpah and really morally ambiguous with Spaghetti Westerns. All this not terribly relevant preamble is because one of the two main characters in this book is a nice (more or less) professional killer.

Firstly, a quick word about the title. The title is 1Q84, i.e. the first character is the number one, not the letter i. It has nothing to do with IQ tests. The number 9 in Japanese is pronounced approximately the same as our letter Q. The novel is set in 1984 or, rather, in a 1984. One of the characters, Aomame, feels that, for some reason, there has been a change in the world, a parallel universe, to use the science fiction term, whereby a false 1984 has diverged from the real 1984. She has called this 1Q84, with Q standing for Question. Just to take this one step further, one of the characters points out that 1984 is, of course, the year of Big Brother. Were a real Big Brother to turn up, we would recognise and reject him. This story offers an alternative fictional concept, the Little People. Would we recognise them?

I have previously mentioned the basis for a Murakami novel and this one follows the usual trajectory. The male hero is Tengo. He is a maths teacher, teaching at a crammer school. His ambition is to be a writer and, in his spare time, he writes. He is, of course, single and has few friends. He used to have occasional sex with some of his former students (not current ones) but that became too complicated so now has weekly sex with a married woman ten years older than him. He is very happy with this arrangement. Tengo had a hard time growing up. According to his father, his mother died soon after he was born but he has a memory, when aged eighteen months, of his mother having her nipples sucked by a man who was not his father. His father had worked in Manchuria when it was under Japanese rule but had managed to flee before the Soviet invasion and manages to get a job collecting fees for NHK, the Japanese broadcasting company. Tengo submitted a story to a new writing competition. The story did not win but he was contacted by one of the organisers, Komatsu, who feels Tengo has potential. Tengo has now become one of the judges and, early on in the book, identifies a story with great potential, submitted by a seventeen-year high school young woman, under the name of Fukaeri. Komatsu feels that the story has great potential, maybe even enough to win the prestigious Akutagawa Prize but that it is very raw and needs editing. He feels that Tengo is the man to edit it. Tengo reluctantly agrees to the task and a meeting is arranged between him and Fukaeri. She turns out to be a strange young woman, hardly saying a word, admitting that she did not write the book but, rather, dictated it to a friend, that she does not read books, as she is dyslexic, and she is indifferent to her schooling and her future.

There is always a mysterious young woman in Murakami’s books and, while Fukaeri could clearly fit the bill, we also have our (fairly) nice professional killer, Aomame (it means green bean). She is thirty years old and works for an organisation run by a very rich elderly lady, though her day job as is a fitness trainer. Her job seems to be to kill men who have seriously abused their spouses. Indeed, the opening of the book, in alternative chapters with the story of Tengo, is about one of her killings, a nasty businessman. We soon learn that her work is based both on her own experience and that of the rich elderly lady, both of whom have seen men viciously abusing their wives and have taken appropriate steps to punish the men. But, as mentioned above, Aomame is not exactly sure where she is. At the beginning of the day on which the novel opens, for example, the police wore a certain type of uniform and used conventional six shooter guns. By the end of the day, they are wearing more casual uniforms and using Beretta automatic pistols. Other things strike her. For example, she is an assiduous reader of newspaper, yet various major national and international events seem to have taken place in the recent past of which she is unaware. And, suddenly, there are two moons. No-one else finds this strange. We also know, as this is a Murakami novel, that the two seemingly different stories will eventually converge and we get hints of how this is to happen early on. Both stories seem to be linked to Sakigake (it means something like pioneer or precursor), a commune that has become a religion, founded by Fukaeri’s father. Of course, as this is Murukami, we can expect the unexpected. In Japan (and the UK but not the US), Books 1 and 2 were published separately from Book 3. The story sort of ends at the end of of Book 2, though quite a few plot strands are left incomplete.

Book 3 was published after the first two books in Japan (though at the same time in the UK and USA). Interestingly enough, the first two books were translated into (US) English by Jay Rubin while the third book was translated into (US) English by Philip Gabriel. Rubin may be professor at Harvard but he does not seem to know that different is followed by from and not by than. If a translator makes mistakes in his own language, how well is he going to know the foreign language from which he is translating? Gabriel does not make that mistake. The first two books have alternating chapters from Aomame and Tengo’s point of view. The third book introduces a tripartite division with Aomame and Tengo joined by Ushikawa. Ushikawa is the investigator hired by Sakigake to find Aomame and much of the book is concerned with his investigations. Though Murakami is such a fine writer, it does not get too boring, much of Aomame’s time is spent hiding away in a small flat so not much happens to her. Tengo’s life is a bit more lively but the real focus is on Ushikawa’s investigations. Of course, we know that Aomame and Tengo have to end up together somehow but we are still unsure how close Ushikawa and Sakigake will get to them and it is Murakami’s skill to keep us guessing to the end.

This book has garnered masses of rave reviews and it is easy to see why. Murakami continues to produce some of the best writing and best stories around. He cleverly mixes in the supernatural world without getting mawkish or too unreal. As always there is a love story but not a conventional one. Above all, he manages to combine the ability to produce a fine story, superb writing and to get us thinking about all sorts of issues in way that we might not normally do.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosha in 2009 in Japanese
First English translation in 2011 by Harvill Secker