By R Alexander
Haruki Murakami writes short stories and big novels where weird things take on strange importance: a disappearing cat leads to a detective type adventure, ears are erotic, jazz and classical music beckons and have magically transformative properties, abandoned wells harbor mysteries. Metaphysics as meaning seems to loom over his work. With each book he writes and as the books get longer, greater and greater claims are made concerning their importance. His latest work, 1Q84, is being called his magnum opus, and a great work of world literature. The book is so long, in fact, that Random House hired two translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, to work on it simultaneously so they could get it to press in a reasonable time.
1Q84 mainly concerns two people living in Tokyo in 1984 who, early in the novel, find themselves in a parallel or alternate universe. The novel’s title refers to one of the character's name for the alternate universe. The “Q,” in 1Q84, stands for "question,” and there is apparently a sonic play on “Q” and “9” in the original Japanese, similar, I suppose to the orthographic play on or resemblance between the figures for “q” and “9” in English.
Aside from this little play on “Q” and “9” in the title, however, Murakami’s prose style remains straightforwardly realistic. No GV Desani-style linguistic or cultural tom-foolery here. Murakami is well known for being the Japanese translator of Raymond Carver and F Scott Fitzgerald, and these influences, Carver’s in particular, are not hidden. In1Q84, Murakami does not depart from his characteristic style and themes.
1Q84’s two protagonists are Tengo Kawana and Aomame. Tengo, a math teacher and would-be fiction writer, crosses paths with the assassin Aomame, during an investigation into a religious cult. The story’s action takes off when Tengo collaborates with a former cult member, a character called Fuka-Eri, in writing a novella that exposes the cult’s sexual rituals which involve paedophilia. The name of the novella is Air Chrysalis, and much of 1Q84 involves the collaborative writing of Air Chrysalis and the cult’s subsequent hunt for Tengo and Fuka-Eri and later also the hunt for Aomame, who assassinates the cult leader and goes into hiding separately. But this hardly gives the real sense of the work. While the plot generally follows the outline of a straightforward thriller, Murakami’s baroque inventiveness twists the story into the bizarre. It is not simply that the book is set in a world that has two moons in the sky, where Japan has become a kind of police state, and where other “mirror universe” trappings appear, but there are the weird things that happen. The religious cult, for example, is based around a charismatic leader and his connection to “The Little People,” a troop of vaguely menacing Leprechaun-like entities who emerge, the first time we see them, from a dead dog’s mouth and who manipulate people and events.
Murakami’s work has been called “surrealist” as well of course as “Kafkaesque” — one of his books is entitled, after all, Kafka on the Shore — and has, naturally, been blessed with the once fashionable term “magic realism.” The interesting thing, of course, is the way Murakami modulates between the realistic, Carver inflected, style and the non-realistic, Kafkaesque, mood and plot of the book. The standard Murakami descriptions of railway platforms, mountains, weather, cars, trains, hospitals, the way people look, and cooking — Murakami is a great one for describing the preparation and consumption of food — and other such “realistic” minutiae of every day life fill the book. Some of this writing manages the modulation brilliantly, as for example in the book’s inset story-within-a-story of the “Town of Cats,” a piece that appeared as a short story in the New Yorker. In general, however, the modulation between the realist and non-realist styles becomes problematic. The abundance of sex and violence in the novel, for instance, is described in such straightforward, even clinical, terms that it becomes oddly non-sensual, non-erotic, even vacuous. Here the novel’s hero, Tengo, describes his hand and then Fuka-Eri’s breasts.
This was the hand that Fuka-Eri had been holding. It still retained her touch. He thought about her chest, its beautiful curves. The shape was so perfect it had almost no sexual meaning. [Chapter 16, p 492.]
In Tengo’s description, his hand and Fuka-Eri's breasts appear disembodied, and the authorial voice introduces the notion of the relationship of a physical object and an associated concept. This relationship or rather the lack of meaning in physical objects is a theme Murakami circles around throughout the book.
As thrillers go, this one takes the professorial route with divagations into all manner of references to Western culture. Janacek, The Thomas Crown Affair, and jazz music are all mentioned, for instance. Proust is commented on. Carl Jung gets an extended discussion. And Anton Chekhov’s writing becomes centrally important.
Chekhov is invoked in two separate contexts when the protagonists go into hiding. When Fuka-Eri, who has just escaped from the religious cult, shows up at Tengo’s apartment, she asks him to read her to sleep. He can’t find his copy of Orwell’s 1984 on his bookshelves, so instead he pulls down Chekhov’s non-fictional account of the harsh conditions on the penal colony of Sakhalin Island. After reading to Fuka-Eri, Tengo silently remarks on the book.
Mixed in with the dry records are some very impressive examples of observation of character and scenic description. Which is not to say there is anything wrong with the dry passages that relate only facts. Some of them are quite marvelous. [p 603.]
One wonders, whether this reference is self-referential. Murakami is remarking on the beauty of realistic description, the attraction a writer and reader might have to this style. He is also remarking on how it can stand out, how it takes on it’s own status, though not by contributing meaning in the standard sense.
Reference to Chekhov appears again later. When the assassin Aomame is about to go into hiding, she seeks the assistance of her employer’s body-guard, Tamaru, a man accustomed to violence but scrupulous in his use of it. Tamaru it seems is an aficionado of Chekhov as well — and later, it turns out, also of Proust — and he cautions Aomame about accepting the gun she has requested for self protection. (It’s worth noting here that, though Aomame is an assassin, her modus operandi involves a kind of fatal acupuncture, if you will. She is unfamiliar with guns, because they are apparently carefully controlled in Japan, where even the police normally go unarmed.) Here, Tamaru invokes Chekhov’s famous dictum of the gun, his oft-quoted nostrum on story plotting.
According to Chekhov,” Tamaru said, rising from his chair, “once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.”
Tamaru stood facing Aomame directly. He was only an inch or two taller than she was. “Meaning, don’t bring unnecessary props into a story. If a pistol appears, it has to be fired at some point. Chekhov liked to write stories that did away with all useless ornamentation.”
Aomame straightened the sleeves of her dress and slung her bag over her shoulder. “And that worries you — if a pistol comes on the scene, it’s sure to be fired at some point.”
“In Chekhov’s view, yes.”
“So you’re thinking you’d rather not hand me a pistol.”
“They’re dangerous. And illegal. And Chekhov is a writer you can trust.”
“But this is not a story. We’re talking about the real world.”
Tamaru narrowed his eyes and looked hard at Aomame. Then, slowly opening his mouth, he said, “Who knows?”
This is a brilliant piece of writing. The nature of reality — “we’re talking about the real world” — and its relationship to the non-realistic plot of the novel collide around Chekhov’s dictum. As it naturally turns out, as the plot approaches its climax, not only is Chekhov’s dictum repeated explicitly, it comes to haunt Aomame to the point that, later in the story, she ultimately feels compelled to fire this gun Tamaru has given her.
That Chekhov’s legacy is invoked in these separate but parallel scenes, scattered throughout the novel, shows where Murakami’s loyalty lies. Chekhov was also a physician and his style and his project were grounded in the real, the tangible, the empiric. Chekhov’s “impressive examples of observation of character and scenic description” are precisely the sorts of things Murakami does well, and he knows it.
Obviously, though, Murakami is consciously blending styles. “You don't think of life as being like a realistic novel, do you?" Borges is said to have once said. His argument and that of many non-realistic writers (magical realists, surrealists, slip stream writers, fabulists, and whatever else have you, etc) is that "naturalistic" or "realistic" fiction is as dependent on unrealistic circumstances as is non-realistic fiction. The happenings in the most realistic of novels often depend on such coincidences as people “accidentally” bumping into each other or letters going astray or catastrophic accidents and so on. Often realistic fiction depends on extraordinary events like inheritances or murders or political revolutions. For that matter, many of the most satisfying realistic fictions have remarkable transformations of character as a major turning point of their plots. And the examination and or fetishizing of purely constructed social relationships (marriages, family, religious hierarchy) or technologies or objects (manor houses, land, cars, guns) is apparent in realistic fiction as much as in non-realistic fiction and it’s alien philosophies and time travel machines. In non-realistic writing, these things are simply taken to the extreme, inverted, or colored in a way to either heighten or diminish their centrality and/or their weirdness.
Murakami’s novel makes self-conscious reference to not only its style — not only Chekhov but many other writers are invoked as well, including Proust, Dostoevsky, and Jung, as mentioned above — but with the writing process itself. Tengo and Fuka-Eri’s literary collaboration, the nature of that creative process, is explored at length in the early part of 1Q84, the premise being that Air Chrysalis is naively written and must be re-written for publication. Tengo thinks of himself as as re-write man, his singular contribution is to improve Fuka-Eri’s style, though the way he puts it, the style is an afterthought, not something essential to the creative process. “I am merely a technician," says Tengo Kawana. This removes the issue of style from serious consideration. Or rather Tengo Kawana would have us believe this is so. Presumably the implied self-reference is ironic, and Murakami means to be up to something much more clever.