Monday, April 27, 2015

1Q84 (Books 1 & 2) by Haruki Murakami, a review

I published this review on Goodreads today. Here is a facsimile.


1Q84 (1Q84, #1-2)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?

Highlight :

"Ho ho", said the keeper of the beat.

"Ho ho", the six other Little People joined in.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Always sign above the line : Japan's surrender in WWII hits an unexpected snag

It began on December 7, 1941 amid death and destruction. It ended on September 2, 1945 in the aftermath of far greater death and destruction, amid a sombre ceremony involving ministers in top hats and bowties. And canes.

It lasted twenty-three minutes. Someone actually stood with a timepiece, probably a pocket-watch, and recorded when each event occurred.

And someone signed below the line.


Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave was a war hero from the first world war, the recipient of two Distinguished Service Orders and the French Croix de Guerre, and the author of the book Afterthoughts of Armageddon recounting his experiences in the Great War. On the fateful day in 1945, he was acting as the Canadian liaison officer in Australia , and for some reason was the only Canadian military officer of sufficient rank1 within shouting distance of the USS Missouri, the ship on which the signing was to take place.

I'll return to the Colonel in a bit.

The Second World War, clearly the most ruinous — and the most significant — war ever fought by Homo sapiens sapiens, was not a very geographically homogeneous affair. While the Germans — aided by the Italians — were pitting their Heer, Kreigsmarine and Luftwaffe (army, navy and airforce) against the Brits and the Russians in the European fronts, the Japanese had their hands full with the Americans in the Pacific Theatre. It was all their fault really; near the end of 1941 they decided to try and bomb the Yankees into submission by successfully managing to enter Pearl Harbour into history books. By the time US troops were landing at Iwo Jima, Japanese strategists must have been looking for a save-load option. However, to the credit of their armed forces and to the ruin of their civilians, they refused to surrender. And thanks to the initiative taken by Leo Szilard, and a certain Albert Einstein which resulted in Pa taking action, US President Harry S. Truman had the means at his disposal to bring down kamikaze upon the Japanese.

Which he did. Twice.

The US copy
Having met history's most notorious overweight male adult and undersized male child, the Japanese decided to throw in the towel. Two copies of the Instrument of Surrender were made, one for the US and one for Japan. The text was drafted by the Americans, and consisted of eight short paragraphs, all brief and to-the-point. It was a two-page document, the left page devoted completely to the text and the right side containing the dotted lines.The Ceremony was scheduled to be held on the USS Missouri, an Iowa class Battleship that had entered Tokyo Bay a few days previously just for this reason.

The Japanese delegation
On the historic day, the US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz boarded the Missouri at 8 o'clock sharp, followed forty-three minutes later by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Force, and fifty-six minutes later by the Japanese representatives led by Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, who was wearing the aforementioned tophat-bowtie-cane ensemble. Gen. MacArthur took up the microphone at two minutes past nine2 and started proceedings that would take a further twenty-three minutes and would be broadcast around the world3. The Japanese representatives signed first, followed by MacArthur and Nimitz. Representatives from China, the UK, the Soviet Union, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand all signed one after the other, and the ceremony was all but over by twenty-two minutes past nine. World War II was all but over.

Well, all but over.

As I mentioned previously, the second page of the document would contain the signatures. Each signatory would be required to sign above a line, below which his designation was provided. For example, General MacArthur signed above the words "Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces", while Foreign Minister Shigemitsu signed above the words "By Command and in4 behalf of the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese Government". Our protagonist, Colonel Cosgrave, was required to sign above the line above the words "Dominion of Canada Representative".

Which he did. Splendidly.

On the US copy.

Japan's copy
On the Japanese copy, however, he managed to sign in the next slot, the one that was meant for the French representative5. Which meant that the French representative, and everyone who followed him, had to sign one slot below, with the poor New Zealand representative signing in no-man's land.

Right after the signing, the Japanese spotted the error, and pointed it out to General Sutherland, Chief-of-Staff to General MacArthur. An ordinary man would have been well within his rights, at that particular moment, to reasonably panic.

Sutherland instead took out his pen.

He then sat down at the table, and proceeded to scratch out the designations of all the representatives following Cosgrave and rewrote them, in all-caps, in the lines below. He then handed the historic document, all penned up, back to the Japanese. Who, justifiably, were not amused. So Sutherland took it back and proceeded to sign his initials against every correction. This time, the Japanese had no further complaints.

No one knows what was going through Colonel Lawrence Cosgrave's mind at that particular moment.

A mighty air-armada celebrated the signing. History's bloodiest war was finally over.


Hiro and Naga, war veterans, still meet at the local watering hole, share a drink, and maintain the same stunned silence. Seventy Years.

  2. Someone had a really good pocketwatch.
  3. Radios, presumably.
  4. Seriously? "in behalf of"? I really think this should have been "on behalf of", given this.
  5. Who truly had one of the most impressive designation-name combinations I have come across : Général de Corps d'Armée Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque.