It’s Only a Paper Moon: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Haruki Murakami proves, once again, that he is a literary god with his newest novel 1Q84.  His fans have known this for years, but now the world knows, too.

1Q84 was released as three separate volumes in Europe and Asia and was published as one big book on October 25 in the United States.  1Q84 comes in at 925 pages and is a surreal masterpiece.

The novel begins in Japan in 1984 with the very beautiful Aomame (whose name literally translates to “green peas” in Japanese).  Gridlock from an accident has her cab backed up in traffic.  An anxious Aomame sits in the backseat, afraid she will be late to an important meeting.

We assume Aomame is a business person late for an appointment with a colleague.  After all, she is dressed for the part in a green light wool Junko Shimada suit, a light beige coat, and Charles Jourdan heels.  She looks to be a typical 1980s Japanese business woman.

Such an assumption could not be further from the truth.  Aomame is a part-time assassin who specializes in ridding the world of men who violently abuse women, and she is very good at what she does.

It is very important to remember that in Murakami’s world many things are not what they seem.  And that truly does begin at the beginning of the novel with Aomame.

The cabdriver senses Aomame’s urgency and tells her about a hidden entrance to a stairway that will eventually lead to the subway.  According to the driver, “it’s for drivers who have to abandon their cars in a fire or earthquake and climb down to the street.”

Aomame decides the emergency stairway is really her only option; she just cannot miss her appointment.  The cabdriver, though, issues her a very cryptic warning with “please remember things are not what they seem.”  Aomame does not understand him and asks the cabdriver what he means.  He explains, “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary…after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little.  Things may look different to you than they did before.”  However, he adds, “there’s always only one reality.”

Aomame goes on with her life as usual.  Her world, though, has been irrevocably altered.  The first hint she has of this is when she notices policemen have slightly different uniforms and carry automatic weapons.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

One night Aomame stares at the sky and sees something “different from the sky she was used to seeing.”  It takes her several minutes to accept what her eyes tell her they see: There are “two moons in the sky–a small moon and a large one…floating there side by side.”  The moon as we know it is still looming, but there is “another moon right next to it…lopsided, and greenish, as though thinly covered with moss.”

Aomame knows something is wrong, something is off kilter.  She decides that she must not be living in 1984 anymore and feels that a “newly changed world must need” a new name.  For that reason, Aomame calls her new world 1Q84 (“Q” translates to the number “9” in Japanese).  For Aomame, the “Q” is also “for question mark” because her new world “bears a question.”  Aomame’s world, the real 1984, no longer exists, as “the air has changed, the scene has changed,” and Aomame will “have to learn the rules of this place and adapt” herself to them.

Meanwhile, Murakami introduces us to a second major character named Tengo.  The true beauty of 1Q84 is how, in time, the lives of Aomame and Tengo intersect. Tengo teaches math at a cram school and is a part-time writer.

A friend of his, Mr. Komatsu, who is also a publisher, asks Tengo to re-write seventeen-year-old Fuka-Eri’s novella called Air Chrysalis.  Mr. Komatsu thinks the work shows promise to win a prize for new writers, but the novella needs polish and re-working.  As Tengo has written for him in the past, the publisher believes Tengo is up to the task.

Tengo finds himself immersed in his own strange, new world.  Fuka-Eri’s story is an unusual one, not typical of a young girl her age.

In Air Chrysalis, a ten-year-old who girl lives in a commune in the mountains is assigned the task of looking after a blind goat.  The goat, according to the story, has “special meaning for the community,” and the girl is responsible for making sure no harm comes to the animal.  However, the goat dies in the girl’s care.  As punishment, the villagers lock the girl in a storehouse with the dead goat and make her stay there for ten days.  During her stay with the goat’s corpse, she meets the “Little People,” who come into the world through the dead goat’s mouth.  The Little People “would go back to the other side when dawn broke.”  The girl speaks to them, and they teach her “how to make an air chrysalis.”  The girl “discovers that she herself is inside the chrysalis” and “stares at this other self of hers lying naked on her back, eyes closed, apparently unconscious, not breaking, like a doll.”  The Little People explain to her the creature inside is her “dohta.”  The girl herself, according to the Little People, is the “maza.”  To me, these words spoken aloud are very similar to mother and daughter and the chrysalis described in the novel almost mimicked pregnancy.

Fuka-Eri, Tengo learns, is herself a strange girl.  Her father is the leader of a cult, and she is the girl in her story.  When she was ten, she ran away from the cult to seek refuge with a family friend and has been with him for seven years.  Her fictional story is really true.  Fuka-Eri helped the Little People create an air chrysalis, which is a cocoon.

Tengo re-writes the story, and the novella goes on to win the new writer’s prize.

As previously stated, the two storylines slowly converge.  Nowhere does this have more impact than when the dowager asks Aomame to kill Leader, Fuka-Eri’s father.  What happens that night seals the fate of everyone involved, but most especially the fates of Aomame and of Tengo.

Tengo realizes later that he, too, is living in a different world.  One night, he notices the two moons in the sky.  He thinks at first “it might be an optical illusion, a mere trick of light rays,” but he realizes it is no illusion.

Aomame and Tengo have a history together, and Murakami reveals this in bits and pieces, never revealing too much too soon.

Rife with symbolism, everything in this story takes on a new, deeper meaning.  For example, Murakami plays with George Orwell’s 1984 in many ways, the most obvious being the title and setting.  Murakami gives “big brother” a new twist  with the “Little People,” who watch over various characters in the story.  Like Big brother, the Little People see all, hear all, and know all, and they are always watching.

Murakami tells the story of Aomame and Tengo in alternating chapters until book three when he introduces a new character into the mix.  This change is jarring.  In fact, book three is my least favorite and the slowest-moving of the story.  There is little action and lots of monologue and stream of consciousness, which distract from the overall story.  The end, though, is very satisfying as everything comes to a wonderful denouement.

If you are planning to read this story, plan on devoting a block of time to it.  I would not advise you to read a chapter here and another chapter there.  1Q84 is a surreal book and calls for the reader to immerse herself in its “surreality.”  If you do anything less, then you are shortchanging yourself.  I will acknowledge that, at 925 pages, 1Q84 might intimidate some readers based on length alone.  Please do not let this deter you from reading and loving this brilliant masterpiece.


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