The English language translation of Murakami’s novel was released in one volume, divided into three books (originally released as three books in the original Japanese version, ichi-kyu-hachi-yon). The cover is a Chip Kidd design and he talks about it here. The three books are in turn divided into between 24 and 31 chapters each, with a timeline for each book of three months (9 months total – April through December). Simple, right? The time frame of the novel is layed out just like that. But time is not that simple as the reader discovers.
Before that though, there is an epigraph from an old tin-pan alley song by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg – 1933’s It’s Only A Paper Moon. This is the same duo that later collaborated on Over The Rainbow. I like to think that this is Tengo’s view of the world: phony, a three ring-circus full of meaningless days. Tengo is disillusioned and adrift, but he’s also a romantic at heart. He’s waiting, though not actively looking for something – and someone – to believe in. And to believe in him. This would transform the world into something real. That someone would turn out to be Aomame, who as a ten-year old classmate had touched him in a way that he could never forget. The novel is a lot of things, but surprisingly at bottom it’s a story of two moon-crossed lovers who meet for an instant, go their separate ways and find each other again many years later. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me introduce.
Starting with Aomame, the chapters throughout books one and two alternate between her and Tengo. Twelve chapters in each book devoted to these two main characters. Really good writing that does the alternation thing has me hating to leave the chapters. But on the other hand it’s great to get back to the other main character as well. The reader is torn. Murakami’s novel is definitely a long one, but it doesn’t seem so. Another sign of a master. And the advantage here is you’ll not easily find a more thorough and engaging look at a character. Or in this case, two characters. Because of the supple unwinding of these two, we are confident that we really know them. Understand them, understand their motivations. Understand how they came to be in the place they are in their lives, and understand the hole they are trying to fill. We genuinely like them.
There’s also a repetitive style that may make some wonder. Here too, though, it’s purposeful. Tengo repeats phrases that have caught him up, turns them over in his mind. This is the way he reaches understanding and full grasp of something. Later in the novel with his father in a nursing home on his deathbed, Tengo recounts his days. They are all the same but his father can’t hear him anyway. It’s just the sound of a voice that he hopes will rouse his father from his coma. He thinks that “sometimes simple repetition has meaning.” This repetition works the same way on the reader. We don’t get the feeling that we are reading the same things over and over (though in many cases we actually are) to no purpose. These repetitions help the reader’s understanding as well.
Tengo, who is 30-years old in 1984, lost his mother when he was very young and was raised by a man who he was not even sure was his father. A hard, taciturn man, they rarely spoke. Certainly never confided in each other. His father was a door to door collector for the NHK, the national broadcasting governmental monopoly. His father used to drag him around on his rounds. Such was his role model. Tengo was left to make his own way, philosophically, emotionally and morally. Tengo was a talented kid, somewhat of a math whiz, but an athlete as well. But he never wanted to pursue mathematics as a career, never wanted to teach, for instance. Tengo drifted into writing, but was undisciplined at it until a seminal event in his life ultimately made him a better writer. His talent had been honed. Still there was this void….
Aomame (her name means “green peas”) is also thirty. She grew up in a religious cult, and accompanied her mother on her door to door proselytizing She also left home at an early age and became self-sufficient, a loner, earning her living as a fitness instructor, taking on private clients. But there was an underside to her. Aomame became an assassin, specializing in men who abused women. She lived alone, with no friends. Her only friend in her youth had committed suicide. For sex, she picked up strangers in bars as a periodic thing when she felt the need. With her too, there was something missing – the love of a true companion and soul mate.
She’s an avid reader, mostly non-fiction and mostly history. She loves the way dates and places line up as the facts of history. History she loves nearly as much as she loves sports.
With Book Three, suddenly the two-man rotation turns to three, as a third main character moves to center stage (having been introduced in Book Two), Ushikawa. So here the chapters alternate Ushikawa-Aomama-Tengo and so on. Ushikawa is a disbarred lawyer turned investigator. He free lances on special assignments for the cult of Fuka-Eri’s father. The description of him led me to think he may have been one of the “little people” who had grown to a bigger size, but this turns out not to have been the case.
There are a number of other secondary characters that fill out the novel and people the narrative. There’s The dowager, who is comfortably set-up with an inheritance from her deceased husband. Her only daughter, who had been terribly abused by her husband, finally committed suicide (there are several suicides in Murakami’s pantheon) and so she has chosen to give shelter to other abused women. Beyond shelter, she has also employed Aomame who dispatches some of the abusers in her own special way. The dowager’s loyal bodyguard and helpmate is Tamaru who is a skilled and dangerous man himself, a former yakuza who now devotes himself to the protection of his employer. He is gay, but takes a liking to Aomame, who he feels an affinity with. Professor Ebisumo is the former friend and cult founder with Tamotsu Fukaka (aka The Leader), the father of Fuka-Eri. Fukawa is a man who appears “to transcend standards of good and evil”. Aomame’s swinger friend Ayumi is a policewoman on her day job, but after hours she likes to party. Aomame is the perfect partner for her out on the town.
So plain-spoken are most of these characters (though they can bring up weighty subjects), that some of the fine imagery escapes our notice, so embedded in the telling are they. But every now and again, you back up and reread something because it engaged your brain after you had passed it by. I particularly liked this one as Aomame observes the clientele in an expensive hotel:
They wore small but expensive accessories, like vampire finches in search of blood, longing for a hint of light they could reflect.
The novel opens with Aomame in a taxi as the radio plays Janacek’s Sinfonietta. This piece is heard throughout the novel by several characters, and is surely the theme song (along with It’s Only a Paper Moon). She’s on her way to a job – a job that turns out to be an assassination, a ‘hit’. Her weapon of choice is a sharpened needle that when driven in at just the right place and angle causes instant death with no trace on the body. But she’s stuck in traffic on the expressway, and when the cabbie tells her there is a little known exit off the expressway, she gets out and takes it. She can’t be late for her “assignment”. As she gets out the driver cryptically tells her that “things are not what they seem”. Meaning that when a person does something out of the ordinary, there are repercussions, subtle changes. Aomame is about to do something unusual.
“…the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before…But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
Tengo is sitting with an editor friend of his (Komatsu) who has a proposal for him. Komatsu has come into possession of an awkwardly written, but utterly fascinating tale written by a seventeen year old girl. Komatsu proposes that Tengo rewrite the novella and that it then be submitted to the jury of a first-writers prize competition, under the name of the young and mysterious Fuka-Eri. Fuka-Eri is a refugee from a religious commune, whose leader as it turns out is her father. She showed up one day on the doorstep of her father’s former best friend, and he has raised her as his own ever since. While staying with her “uncle”, she writes her strongly auto-biographical novella. Writes is not quite accurate, since she is dyslexic – she has dictated it to her “uncles” daughter Azami, who she has befriended. Tengo reluctantly agrees, after meeting with Fuka-Eri to ghost write her novella. Fuka-Eri seems not to care if he does it or not. She just has no interest in what happens to her story now.
The “little people” and the air chrysalis that they weave are a diversion into fantasy. Never let it be said of Murakami that he is restricted by genres: the detective story surrounding the unfolding of the narrative is quite captivating. The fantasy element is intimately connected with the religious cultism of the novel. And the detective fiction element plays a large role in the movement of the two lovers closer to one another. Murder, suicide (things are not always what they seem), betrayal, ninja-like professional body guards, a wealthy matron who is the Godmother of a safe house for battered women are more of the threads that are part of an elaborate but never unwieldy tapestry.
It’s a tale of two worlds (one with two moons – the false reality of 1Q84) and the world of 1984, the world of our familiar single moon. The slipping into one world and out of another is done with heightened anxiety and tension. It’s a page turner from beginning to end, and quite unlike any other work of fiction I have read in a long while. But it’s Murakami, after all.
Listening to Janacek, Aomame thinks about the year (1926) that his “little symphony” was written. There is a new freedom after the war. The people are free of Hapsburg rule and were enjoying peace. Ah, peace. Life with peace is a joyous thing. The beer is good, people have jobs manufacturing “handsome light machine guns”. Kafka was already dead without having been noticed. Hitler though is sneaking up on this bucolic country. Listening to Janacek, Aomame thinks about “the vicissitudes of history”. Things are not always what they seem, over the horizon who knows what lies ahead, what hardships may be in store after the flush of freedom
This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: “At the time, no one knew what was coming”.
At one point Tengo and Fuka-Eri have a discussion about the Orwell novel – she asks him about the Big Brother novel. Or rather, Fuka-Eri asks Tengo what kind of story it is (she doesn’t talk much and when she does it’s a strange way of communicating). When Tengo tells her it’s called 1984 she realizes that it is now 1984. Tengo tells her that “at some point the future becomes reality. And then it quickly becomes the past”. It’s a world where history is constantly being re-written and the protagonist’s job is to rewrite words for the totalitarian government. Ironic, since Tengo’s most recent job was to rewrite the words of Fuka-Eri.
Whenever new history is written, the old histories all have to be thrown out. In the process, words are remade, and the meanings of current words are changed. What with history being rewritten so often, nobody knows what is true anymore. They lose track of who is an enemy and who an ally. Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It’s a crime…Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.
A concise and straightforward view of the link – the “intimate link” – between our personal memory/history and our collective memory/history. One doesn’t often think of these in such simple terms. And it goes to the very question of ‘authenticity’ – our own and our societies. We hear lip service paid to our national identity with the phrase ‘it goes against who we are’, or something is diametrically opposed to our ‘core values’. When there is a schism between our individual and our collective view of ourselves (in the broad sense), we see demonstrations, occupations. Protecting our whole selves is our most basic right.
There is only one reality. And reality is “utterly cool-headed and utterly lonely”. Many of us live lives that replace this “one” reality with dreams. It’s a way to deal with this reality of ours that surrounds us. We cloak ourselves in stories, belief systems that do not mirror this cold reality. We surround ourselves with like-minded believers, in a spirit of community if not communion. We are not alone. Who is to say that to deny the cool-headed reality for a warm, embracing set of rituals is not the way to live. Not the way to make life bearable, and even pleasurable.
Aomame keeps this mantra, this lesson she learned from the taxi-driver. When she finds herself questioning what she is seeing, she pulls herself back to the belief that there is only one reality. To distinguish where she finds herself, in an alternate 1984, she decides to give this altered world another name.
1Q84 – that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided.
Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.
Talking with his girlfriend about the other work, Tengo tells her that people do pretty much the same things in both worlds. So, what’s the point of another world? she asks. Tengo tells her that “the point of its being a world that isn’t here is in being able to rewrite the past of the world that is here.” What this means exactly is a bit muddled but his girlfriend tells him she has no desire to rewrite the past. Now the present…that’s another story. Tengo points out that by rewriting the past, then the present would by definition change. After all, “what we call the present is given shape by an accumulation of the past” During their entire conversation, in typical Murakami fashion, she’s playing with his penis.
On Memory and Dreams
When Tengo is introduced he is thinking about his first memory. This first memory recurs to him several times throughout the course of the novel. He sees his mother, slip slid off her shoulders as a man is sucking on her breasts. There is an infant in a crib watching this and Tengo believes that this is himself.
The vivid ten-second scene was seared into the wall of his consciousness, his earliest memory in life. Nothing came before or after it. It stood out alone, like the steeple of a town visited by a flood, thrusting up above the muddy water.
First memories are never forgotten it seems. I have one as well. And it is, like Tengo’s, observed in the third person, though I must be older than Tengo was at the time of his first memory. I look at myself crawling on the floor. I’m under a table looking at my father who appears to be dressed and going out the door. Nothing frightful, or do I wonder if he will be back? This leaving. Do I experience this concept for the first time? Is this why it remains a vivid scene. And mine is like a still photograph. No ten-second scenes for me. It’s the third person that is interesting. I am looking at the scene, but I am in the scene as well. Is this a vivid first memory because it is a realization that there is a me in the world? I observe. For maybe the first and last time. After this, “I” am one.
Memories can take on a life of their own. Memories can be embellished to conform to our psychological needs. To fill in that blank space in our lives. More on Tengo’s “souvenir photograph” of his mother:
It was the only concrete information he had about his mother, the one tenuous connection his mind could make with her. They were linked by a hypothetical umbilical cord. His mind floated in the amniotic fluid of memory, listening for echoes of the past. His father, meanwhile, had no idea that such a vivid scene was burned into Tengo’s brain or that, like a cow in the meadow, Tengo was endlessly regurgitating fragments of the scene to chew on, a cud from which he obtained essential nutrients. Father and son: each was locked in a deep, dark embrace with his secrets.
As Aomame observes the moon, she begins to ponder the things the moon has seen, what all it has witnessed. what secrets it holds.
But the moon remained silent; it told no stories. All it did was embrace the heavy past with cool, measured detachment. On the moon there was neither air nor wind. Its vacuum was perfect for preserving memories unscathed. No one could unlock the heart of the moon.
Memories locked up and unscathed. But that’s the moon. What of our memories? Held up against the light of day, presented and measured, they may not stand up to the scrutiny. To the comparison with others memories. These memories can become battered, bruised, altered to unrecognition. Memories are dynamic and changeable when unlocked.
When his girlfriend asks Tengo to tell her one of his dreams, he tells her that he can’t remember them after he wakes up. He only has a “lingering sensation” that he was having a dream, but he can never remember them. I’m in the same boat. I envy people who dream and remember them. There’s a woman at work who relates the strangest dreams in great detail. Dreams, I think are a source for self-understanding – and wonder. I do know that when I was younger I did have vivid dreams. When I woke up, if I worked on recalling them, I could hold on to the images and talk about them, or at least think about them. Somehow I lost that ability. As we get older, I often wonder: do we lose the ability to recall our dreams? I assume that we still dream, but who knows? Sometimes I wonder if it’s unhealthy not to dream?
This leads ro a conversation about moonlight and the difference between ‘insane’ and ‘lunatic’. In the 19th Century, the insane were treated as if they had a medical condition. The ‘lunatic’ however, was looked upon as having been temporarily ‘seized’ by the lunar, the moon, hence the term ‘lunatic’. Lunatics were less responsible for their actions, and their cases were treated less severely. In other words, his girlfriend tells him, “the fact that the moon can drive people crazy was actually recognized in law”.
On Writing and Reading Fiction
Tengo has talent as a writer but has yet to hit his stride. He’s missing something in his life, and missing something in his writing to really excel. Working as a ghostwriter placed him on a path to hone his skills. I loved this description of Tengo’s nascent talents:
He was a born technician, possessing both the intense concentration of a bird sailing through the air in search of prey and the patience of a donkey hauling water, playing always by the rules of the game.
Good fiction writing may just be understanding the rules of the game and then throwing them overboard. Tengo was schooled as a mathematician, and he was a child prodigy in that field, so when he turned to fiction after his formal schooling, he naturally reflected on the comparisons and the differences between fiction and mathematics.
Where mathematics was a magnificent imaginary building, the world of story as represented by Dickens was like a deep, magical forest for Tengo. When mathematics stretched infinitely upward toward the heavens, the forest spread out beneath his gaze in silence, its dark, sturdy roots deep into the earth. In the forest there were no maps, no numbered doorways.
The clarity of mathematics enthralled him in his middle school years, but when he entered adolescence he came to the realization that this was not enough. Outside of mathematics, there was the ‘real world’ and the real world was not changed by mathematics. Mathematics was just a temporary escape. But ah, the escape into fiction…sure, it was also temporary, but the return to real life was not as “devastating”. He concludes the reason for this was that in mathematics, the solutions were always clear-cut. Not so in fiction, where one can return to the real world with a sort of magic potion in hand. In fiction, the reader reads about real life problems. There may be no clear-cut answers (as in mathematics), but merely suggestions for solutions to a particular problem.
It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within.
There are several instances where Tengo recalls something Chekhov has written about writing. As a student of writing Tengo had a high regard for the lessons of Chekhov. Among those teachings was the belief that it was not the novelists duty to answer questions – it is his duty to ask them. And for practical advise, there’s always this: “Once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.” For Chekhov, “useless ornamentation” had no place in his fiction. All the parts had to fulfill a purpose.
Later, Aomame and Tamaru have the conversation about the gun again. The Chekovian principle may be ignored in the novel (in the world) they are in. That’s ok, Tamaru says,
Things are different from back in Chekov’s time. No more horse-drawn carriages, no more women in corsets. Somehow the world survived the Nazis, the atomic bomb, and modern music. Even the way novels are composed has changed drastically.
While visiting his father in the nursing home, Tengo calls Fuja-Eri. They have a bland conversation about “doing the same thing everyday”. One day leads to another and time moves forward. A day at a time. There is a crow that visits Fuka-Eri every day, in a routine just like theirs. “But it doesn’t think about time” says Fuka-Eri.
“Crows can’t think about time. Probably only humans have the concept of time.”
“Why,” she asked.
“Humans see time as a straight line. It’s like putting notches on a long straight stick. The notch here is the future, the one on this side is the past, and the present is this point right here…But actually time isn’t a straight line. It doesn’t have a shape. In all senses of the term, it doesn’t have any form. But since we can’t picture something without form in our minds, for the sake of convenience we understand it as a straight line. At this point, humans are the only ones who can make that sort of conceptual substitution.”
“But maybe we are wrong.”
“That’s a possibility. Maybe we are wrong and the crow is right. Maybe time is nothing like a straight line. Perhaps it’s shaped like a twisted doughnut.”
Aomame muses that because of our needs, our prior choices, we may limit our free will.
It could be that everything’s decided in advance and we pretend we’re making choices. Free will may be an illusion.
As I mentioned earlier, the true heart of Murakami’s novel is a love story. And lovers have to triumph, right? Despite all the ‘trials and tribulations’.
The clouds finally broke and the moon came into view. .
There was just one moon. That familiar, yellow, solitary moon. The same moon that silently floated over the fields of pampas grass, the moon that rose – a gleaming, round saucer – over the calm surface of lakes, that tranquilly beamed down on the rooftops of fast-asleep houses. The same moon that brought the high tide to shore, that softly shone on the fur of animals and enveloped and protected travelers at night. The moon that, as a crescent, shaved slivers from the soul, – or, as a mew moon, silently bathed the earth in its own loneliness. That moon.