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Monday, October 22, 2012

Essay: Murakami's 1Q84 Book 1

Haruki Murakami is not an author I would recommend to everyone, but he is an author whose work I love to fall into. It's sometimes magic realism, sometimes fantastical, sometimes just outright other-worldly.

His characters live lives of routine, their sadness just beneath the surface. They carry on without giving the impression of having given up. Some have secret wishes or desires, reasons to continue on.              

Such are the two main characters in 1Q84, Murakami's three-part work of fiction with two moons, Little People and either one reality, or not.

Book 1 of the novel takes place from April through June in the year 1984. Possibly. Because in the opening chapter, a young woman named "green peas", or Aomame, is in a cab stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge, recogizing a piece of classical music she realizes she shouldn't know. As she prepares to climb off the bridge at the cab driver's suggestion, he tells her that she should use her own eyes and her own judgment, and that "there's always only one reality".

The driver repeats this "slowy, as if underlining an important passage in a book" which I, of course, highlighted. For a writer who deals in alternate realities and visits from characters that cannot possibly exist, Murakami is quite honest in his dealings. He doesn't try to trick readers. If a character repeats something that the reader is told is important well, then, it's important.

But before learning more about Aomame, the next chapter instead focuses on a young man named Tengo. He teaches math at a cram school three days a week but otherwise works at writing. His own work hasn't been published, but his editor, Komatsu, a powerful, behind-the-scenes man in publishing, thinks he has potential.

Komatsu has a fradulent scheme in mind that he needs Tengo to bring about. A short story for an upcoming contest has come to his attention that needs rewriting. The story itself, about Little People, captures Komatsu's interest, but he says it should have been written better. Pooling their resources will make the story a winner.

In alternating chapters, it is revealed that Aomame is an assassin with a cause. Tengo's cause becomes that of the short story writer, Fuka-Eri, a quiet, determined teenager whose parents disappeared into a cult.

The professor who has become Fuka-Eri's de facto guardian tells Tengo about his old friends, the girl's parents, and a cult within a cult that broke apart from the main commune group and which is shrouded in secrecy. Murakami has written about the cult that released Sarin gas into the Tokyo underground, and it could well be that group and its effect on Japanese culture is addressed here as well. (The nonfiction book is Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche).

In their conversation, Tengo and Fuka-Eri discuss the difference between math and literature, and reality. Their words are a hint of what the plot might be, especially for readers of Murakami's earlier novel, After Dark, After Dark, but they also are a distillation of what writing can bring to nourish a soul:

"When I'm writing a story, I use words to transform the surrounding scene into something more natural for me. In other words, I reconstruct it. That way, I can confirm without a doubt that this person known as 'me' exists in the world. This is a totally different process from steeping myself in the world of math."
"You confirm that you exist," Fuka-Eri said.
"I can't say I've been one hundred percent successful at it," Tengo said. 

This idea of creation gains more importance when the reader learns that Tengo and Aomame knew each other as children. She was the lonely little girl raised by parents in a church much like Jehovah's Witnesses, apart from the other children. He was a big, smart, athletic boy who told other children to not pick on her one day. She grasped his hand but otherwise stayed remote. And one day moved away.

Now in their early 30s, they both still think of each other, placing the other up on a pedestal.

Based on the plots of other Murakami novels, I have an idea about what is going on and what may happen. When Komatsu tells Tengo that in rewriting the young girl's story, he will "be the go-between -- connecting Fuka-Eri's world and the real world we live in," I have an idea. But whether I'm right or wrong doesn't matter overall. Because what matters even more than the plot is the whole of the narrative.

And in Aomame's narrative, she is trying to remain a lone wolf. The fitness trainer does have a private client, the dowager, who set her up in the assassin business to dispatch men who abuse women. The dowager has a silent bodyguard/butler, but that's about all. Until Aomame meets another woman, a police officer, and they befriend each other to make meeting men casually easier.

She drifts along until she notices there are two moons in the evening sky. When did that happen? And, in the pre-internet days, how can she look this up without appearing bonkers? Aomame has forgotten a few other key events in the recent past as well. Trying to figure out what has happened, she starts rationalizing:

It's not me but the world that's deranged. ...
At some point in time, the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place. Like the switching of a track. In other words, my mind, here and now, belongs to the world that was, but the world itself has already changed into something else. So far, the actual changes carried out in that process are limited in number. Most of the new world has been retained from the world I knew, which is why the changes have been presented (virtually) no impediments to my daily life -- so far. But the changes that have already taken place will almost certainly create other, greater differences around me as time goes by. Those differences will expand little by little and will, in some cases, destroy the logicality of the actions I take. They could well cause me to commit errors that are -- for me -- literally fatal.

What those differences and errors may become are not revealed in this book. What is revealed is how noticing the two moons has awakened Aomame. She no longer appears to drift, because no matter how precisely she conducts herself, she has been drifting. Instead, she begins to open up, even if only inside, in beautifully translated prose:

How long had she been thinking? She seemed to have lost her grasp of time at some point while she was deeply absorbed in her own thoughts. Only her heart continued to tick off the time in its hard, fixed rhythm. Aomame visited several little rooms she possessed inside her, tracing time backward the way a fish swims upstream. She found there familiar sights and long-forgotten smells, gentle nostalgia and severe pain.
Suddenly, from some unknown source, a narrow beam of light pierced Aomame's body. She felt as though, mysteriously, she had become transparent. When she held her hand up in the beam, she could see through it. Suddenly there was no longer any weight to her body. At this moment Aomame thought, (italics) Even if I give myself over to the madness -- or prejudice -- here and now, even if doing so destroys me, even if this world vanishes in its entirety, what do I have to lose? 

Again and again, the idea of constructing a world and the idea of the world not being real are brought up in the narratives of both Tengo and Aomame.

In addition to the concept of two moons and a world that may or may not be real, with two narratives joined only by the childhood encounter of the two protagonists, 1Q84 has the cult where Fuka-Eri's parents were last seen and overt references to Orwell's classic.

Tengo says that Orwell's point is that:

Whenever a new history is written, the old histories all have to be thrown out. In the process, words are remade, and the meanings of current words are changed. What with history  being rewritten so often, nobody knows what is true anymore. They lose track of who is an enemy and who an ally. It's that kind of story." ...
"Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It's a crime." ...
"Our member is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us -- is rewritten -- we lose the ability to sustain our true selves."

In the context of Murakami's world, new and old histories aren't political. They are personal. And they may determine what is real for what character, especially when finishing the rewrite of Fuka-Eri's story unlocks writers block for Tengo. He begins writing a novel with two moons. Speaking with his lover, an older woman, the dual nature of Murakami's story is once again brought up:

"So in the world that isn't here, people do pretty much the same things as those of us who are in this world. If that's the case, then, what's the point of its being a world that isn't here?"
"The point of its being a world that isn't here is in being able to rewrite the past of the world that is here," Tengo said.
"... What I'd like to rewrite is the present, here and now."
"But if you rewrote the past, obviously, the present would change, too. What we call the present is given shape by an accumulation of the past."

Copyright 2012 Lynne Perednia; originally published at Daily Kos

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