I published this review on Goodreads today. Here is a facsimile.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Cats. Haruki Murakami loves cats. They are everywhere. They are in Kafka on the Shore, a book I have not yet read. They are in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another book I have not yet read. They are in 1Q84 (1&2), a book that I have just finished reading. Well, its first two parts anyway.
Short anecdotes within a novel that give the reader a brief break from the principal characters and yet retain a degree of relevance to the overall plot are a welcome feature, with both David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and 1Q84 (1&2) having them. In Mitchell's case, the story about the two vendors who take shelter for the night in an old temple retains at most a tenuous connection with the principal plot. Murakami, on the other hand, uses the story about the Town of Cats to great effect, it essentially being a reflection of the primary plot.
The novel begins in the year 1984 in Japan with one of the two primary protagonists, Aomame (a name that curiously means Green peas in Japanese), stuck in a traffic jam en route to an important appointment. Sensing that she will not reach in time, the taxi driver offers her a way out; she'll be able to exit the highway using an emergency staircase that not many know exists and then take the subway. Aomame ponders this while listening to the Janáček's Sinfonietta, a twenty-five minute composition from 1926. Aomame decides to take the taxi driver's suggestion and, musing on his cryptic parting remarks, climbs the barricade and descends the stairway. Thus begins her foray into wonderland, into a town of cats. As her story progresses, she realizes as the Eagles did that she can try and check out of this town of cats any time she likes, but she can never leave.
Tengo Kawana, the other primary protagonist, is looking for his place in the world. As a child and continuing into his early youth, he was hailed as a mathematical prodigy. However, that early promise has by 1984 all but fizzled out. He now teaches mathematics at a Tokyo cram school three times a week, and devotes the rest of his time to writing novels. It is he who brings the novella Air Chrysalis, written by the seventeen-year old Fuka-Eri, to the attention of the magazine editor Komatsu and points out its captivating plot. On Komatsu's insistence, Tengo reluctantly accepts a daring plan to ghostwrite the badly written novella into something that can win a debut literature award.
A reviewer of Kafka on the Shore had likened Murakami's writing to a plane taking off. The first few pages would see the plane taxiing on the tarmac, seemingly indifferent to its purpose in life and least bothered about the bored passengers it carried. Then, of course, it would line up on the take-off runway, set itself, and go! The pre-take-off acceleration would be breathtaking, taking the novice reader entirely by surprise and the experienced ones with returning thrill. And then it would take off, into the wide blue skies and its depthless expanse, where the boundaries between reality and imagination relentlessly blur.
While I perhaps wouldn't use exactly the same analogy for 1Q84 (1&2), I would compare the pacing to a fifty-over cricket match as it used to played in the late nineties and early noughties. The first few pages (the first fifteen overs) would be breezy and exciting, the middle bits slow and mildly meandering (the middle overs), with the pace picking up again towards the end (the slog overs).
Although it perhaps suffers from a case of mild lack of plot dynamics in its central portions, it uses those pages to build up the characters of Tengo and Aomame in meticulous detail, and has enough spare space to flesh out the supporting cast that include the enigmatic cat-like Fuka-Eri, the mercurial Komatsu, the intellectual Professor Ebisuno, the stately dowager, the stoic Tamaru, the tragic Ayumi, the repugnant Ushikawa, the mysterious Leader, and of course the Little People. Surrounded as they were by such varied characters, Aomame and Tengo are still essentially lonely, alienated souls, tied together in the roles they play, or will play, as the destiny holders of the world of 1Q84.
1Q84 is a world that differs from 1984 in a a few minor ways and in one very major way. Police uniforms change, mysterious US-USSR joint bases suddenly pop up on the moon, and religious sects appear out of agricultural communes. And there is an extra moon in the sky.
Murakami's narrative weaves in and out of the daily and mundane to the surreal, and as he pulls Tengo and Aomame even deeper into the rabbit hole, the readers find that they have now entered the town of cats.
Did I mention that Murakami likes cats?
"Ho ho", said the keeper of the beat.
"Ho ho", the six other Little People joined in.
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