Holiday Reading: 1Q84


My summer holiday this year was in Mallorca – two nights in Palma, then a week on the north eastern coast at a lovely resort called Puerto Pollensa.

One of the highlights was a visit to La Seu, the cathedral in Palma – a Gothic masterpiece remodelled inside by Gaudi.  More on that another day perhaps. But for today, edging my toe back into the waters of  the blogosphere after some months of frantic writing, I thought I’d write about my holiday reading. Because after all that’s the point of holidays – isn’t it?  Sitting in the sun, sipping a cold beer, reading.  Forget sunbathing – it’s the books that matter.

I read four books, including C. J. Sansom’s chunky and wonderful SOVEREIGN and Esi Edugyan’s magnificent HALF BLOOD BLUES.   But the centrepiece of the reading schedule was Haruki Murakani’s 1Q84, which in fact is three novels not one.  I recommend it hugely – it’s a fine book, and a great fantasy novel to boot, though so far as I know it’s never been nominated for a Hugo Award.

The novel tells, in alternating chapters, the story of Tengo, a 30-year-old  man  and Aomame (‘Ah-oh-mah-me’) a  woman of the same age, and it’s set in Japan in the year 1984. And the title is an allusion to George Orwell’s great SF novel; apparently the letter ‘Q’ in Japanese is pronounced the same as ’9′.  If you want to know more than that, you’ll need to read the book.  But I will say that there are fantastical elements and amazing plot twists.  And it passes the Holiday Novel prerequisite, in that once you start it’s impossible to put it down.  And in fact, when I was reading it on the beach a  woman came up to me and said she’d just read it (and indeed her daughter was now reading it.)  For her the joy of the book was that just when you thought it couldn’t shock and surprise you any more, it shocked and surprised you just a little bit more.

Since I can’t summarise the plot I can’t really offer a detailed critique of the book; nor indeed do I want to.  But I would like to spin off into a few reflections on Murakami and popular versus literary fiction.

For Murakami is, without doubt, one of the Big Beasts of the literary fiction world, and is currently tipped to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I’ve only read one of his previous novels, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I thought was a fine and a wonderful piece of writing but ultimately disappointing.  But I’m certainly aiming to read through his earlier works, now that I’m a fully-fledged fan after being awed by the experience of reading 1Q84.

However, some literary critics have reacted badly to Murakami’s newest best-selling tome.  Bryan Walsh laments the absence of the trademark Murakami first-person narration. And Christian William argues the book is ‘all flab’, and deplores the ‘memory insulting repetitions of the main characters’ motivations, histories and looks.’  And the blogger Russian Dinosaur writes interestingly about why he found the book disappointing, while also writing very pertinent comments on the influence of Chekhov and Dostoevesky on the book.

Because yes, this really is a very literary kind of literary novel; big chunks of Chekhov are included in the text, there are hommages to Kafka, there’s an entire short story called Town of Cats which is pure magic realism (and joyous with it).  So there’s no doubt at all that this is a Clever Book, which flatters readers with its range of references (there’s nowt wrong with that, I merely observe.) But there is a larger and greater stylistic influence on this novel which none of these critics acknowledged; and, I would humbly submit, it affects how you read and judge the book and its supposed infelicities and excesses. It’s not a writer, it’s a genre – manga/anime.

I love manga and anime; but to read them you have to accept certain style quirks. Repetition, for sure, especially in anime series, where in every episode the story of the piece to be recapituated. Stiff, expository dialogue; there’s so much of it even in the best anime series that it becomes part of the fun.  Sexual stuff – nudity, smuttiness, and a strange obsession with girl-women.  There are all present in 1Q84; Aomame is a quintessential anime/manga heroine, with her girlish body and flat delivery.  And Tengo reminds me of the big brother in TOKKO, the supernatural anime series about demons in Tokyo.

So the memory-insulting repetition is not a blunder, it’s a style choice.


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