I’ve said before that this blog is partly about literature. This is because I love to read, so much so that I even completed English Honours some time ago (not bragging). Funnily enough though, I NEVER seem to write about books, do I? Nup. I think The Watchmen is the only one I’ve written about and even then I drew some all too pedestrian link to Dexter. Lazy.
There are two problems which explain this infrequency: 1) I am an embarrassingly slow reader. Painstakingly slow. 2) I’m a majorly picky reader. If I decide three quarters of the way through a novel that it’s too directionless or boring, I’ll shut the cover forever. This is just how I have to read. If I’m a slow reader, how can I ever find time to read shitty books that I only feel so-so about? I want to get some entertainment and maybe even some insight from these things.
So imagine my excitement at discovering one of the best authors I’ve ever come across. Haruki Murakami’s beautiful works are accessible and simply written, but poetic. He has a solid reputation like say, Salmon Rushdie, but unlike Rushdie you don’t feel like he’s trying to prove his intellect through prolonged, unstructured prose which academics mistake for talent.
Murakami knows how to maintain structure and build on style. In Kafka on the Shore, for instance, the novel straightforwardly takes us through the perspectives of a teen boy who has hit puberty in a profound way, and an elderly illiterate man. Murakami draws us through surreal moments but by and large it is all tied structurally to a story of a boy running away from his destiny. Much of the book is set in a peaceful library, which is comfortingly used as an allegory for memories:
“Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in awhile, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.”
Kafka on the Shore is, of course, not the only accomplished novel Murakami has released. My first exposure was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a foreboding yet whimsical story about a man who searches for his missing wife down a well. Apparently there has been a stage production of Wind-Up Bird, which I would kill to see.
Murakami’s latest magic realism tale, 1Q84, explores the inevitably intertwined lives of Aomame and Tengo. Aomame lives a simple life, taking little pleasure in food, career, clothing and socialising. But apart from teaching self defence and stretching techniques, she also from time to time kills men who have, in some extreme form, abused their wives.
Tengo’s seemingly simple life as an author becomes exciting as he agrees to rewrite and subsequently improve upon talented 16 year old Fuka-Eri’s novel.
The book vaguely refers back to Orwell’s 1984, with a cult, Sakigake, considered something of a big brother that shadows our leading characters. The numbers and letters 1-Q-8-4 are essentially 1984 in Japanese (because a nine sounds like “kew”), however the Q is Aomame’s way of distinguishing between the real world (1984) and one which she believes she has mistakenly climbed down into (1Q84).
Three books totaling over 900 pages seems like a bit of a slog and it’s probably important that you see this collection for what it is. It’s not high adventure science fiction, nor is it a romance. You will only take from it what is important to you (given how dynamic and complex the intricacies of the story are), however I saw the novel more as a visceral take on identity. Both Aomame and Tengo are self-aware and self-assured, and these are possibly their strongest traits. They know exactly who they are, and they hold fast to their individualised identities (especially when they’re most vulnerable) as the world threatens them. This is evident in the sex scenes, which are either sinister and borderline violent or literally forgettable.
The cult which eventually threatens Aomame’s and Tengo’s lives leans heavily against Aomame’s background and upbringing. Her decision to leave a sect when she was little cost her her family connection, but it has also taught her to value her own identity, whether formed in part by her mother or by her own decisions. Apart from Tengo and Aomame, Fuka-Eri too seems confident in her own identity, despite the fact that she has obvious ‘flaws’ like speaking in a flat uninflected tone.
The best illustration for this promotion of self identity is when Fuka-Eri stares at the ugly Ushikawa. For much of the book Ushikawa almost boastingly accepts his poor looks and superficially founds much of his identity in his image; he even justifies his poor choices by his looks. Until Fuka-Eri stares at him where she shouldn’t be able to see him; when she does so there is a suggestion that she is pitying him. After this eye-lock Ushikawa is struck by feelings of doubt and he questions himself.
This scene alone alludes to an idea that Aomame, Tengo and Fuka-Eri are so sure of themselves that it gives them an inner strength hollow men like Ushikawa cannot attain.
I find this character development particularly rewarding given how celebrated of late character traits like success and career drive seem to be. Maybe it’s our recent obsession with the financial outlook and possible financial down-turns, which dominate some of our primary decision-making. I just finished reading The Hunger Games, and while I liked the book, even that falls into the trap of centering on a heroine who is successful in far too many ways; who not only wins the game but does so without callously killing anybody. Something which is not only unbelievable but formulaic and unsatisfying to read. Through their talents Aomame and Tengo become wealthy, but this wealth is minimised and ignored. To them, it is not an achievement.
Murakami’s characters have always been humble and isolated.They are grounded by almost monotonous moments of eating, wearing dull clothes and spending long periods of time alone. And these moments might be boring if it wasn’t for Murakami’s poetic style and accurate insight.
As I said before, 1Q84 is not an action packed science fiction novel, nor is it a romance. 1Q84 is a rewarding read for the strong characterisation; with the leading roles self reflecting while the world around them changes.
You can read an excerpt of 1Q84 here.