The title of Haruki Murakami’s new three-volume novel points to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Japanese word for “nine” is pronounced like “Q”, so 1Q84 can be read as “one-nine-eight-four”. But the book feels more like Alice in Wonderland.
This being Murakami, the Alice character is not a Victorian English girl. Rather she is a 30-year-old Japanese physical instructor, with a penchant for one-night stands and a sideline in ice-pick assassinations. Like Alice, Aomame enters a parallel world by accident. Instead of falling down a rabbit hole, she climbs into 1Q84 down an emergency stairway leading off a Tokyo flyover.
At one point she says to herself in Alice-like monologue, her thoughts helpfully spelt out in italics: “It doesn’t make any sense. I could try to explain it until I went hoarse and nobody would ever believe me ... But remember – this is the year 1Q84. A strange world where anything can happen.”
Indeed it can, if you count immaculate conception, two moons hanging in the sky and mind-reading. Fantasy liberates Murakami from the conventions that logic and reality impose. When he strikes the right note, he can delight us as much – well perhaps not quite as much – as Lewis Carroll’s magic potions and vanishing Cheshire cats. But artifice can be taken to excess so that, rather like in a David Lynch TV series, even the most startling of occurrences is drained of significance.
In one scene, a little girl is locked in a room with a dead goat. In the middle of the night six “Little People” – a seeming, and rather pointless, nod to George Orwell’s Big Brother – crawl from the goat’s mouth. When the girl wonders if there shouldn’t be seven, as in the Seven Dwarfs, hey presto, they become seven. “The girl does not find this especially strange, however,” we are told. “The rules of the world had already changed when the Little People came out of the goat’s mouth. Anything could happen after that.” Quite so.
Murakami, who some favoured for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, is not everybody’s cup of green tea. But for the most part he resists the temptation to go too far, in spite of the fact that he has allowed himself three volumes and 992 pages in which to wander. For the most part the novel, written in fast-paced style, stays the right side of fantasy. The parallel world of 1Q84 bears less resemblance to a separate place than it does to a drunk’s blurred perception of the world we live in. The book therefore explores what it means to live side by side with our fellow humans without properly connecting, doomed to observe the same world – presumably – slightly differently from others.
The first two volumes repeat a device used in previous Murakami books to present parallel experiences. Every other chapter tells the story of Tengo, an aspiring novelist who gets sucked into 1Q84 when he agrees to rewrite Air Chrysalis, a novel produced by a teenage girl. The other chapters recount events around Aomame, who met Tengo when she was 10 years old. Subconsciously, they have been searching for each other ever since. Much of the book, part love story, revolves around whether they will ever meet again.
In the third volume, probably the best, these twin tales are joined by a third. Ushikawa, a private detective who made an appearance earlier on, returns to try to hunt down the two main characters. He has such a malformed head and unfortunate dress sense that he sticks out too much to work successfully under cover. Murakami once told me that he deliberately avoided exploring character and, indeed, most of his creations are little more than the food they eat, the music they listen to and the clothes they wear. But Ushikawa is different. Though he is loathsome – perhaps because he is loathsome – we end up caring about him more than many other Murakami characters.
The book Tengo rewrites turns out to be a real account of the goings-on inside a religious cult. Murakami has been drawn to the closed world of cults – with their warped idealism and internal logic – ever since 1995 when Aum fanatics sprinkled sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. His characters, and to some extent Murakami himself, look for meaning in the cult’s transcendental rituals and belief systems. But in the end, the novel affirms the value of an open world, where individuals are free from thought control.
Fans of Murakami will find all their favourite elements here. Sceptics, even as they are swept along, will wonder whether they are being led on a wild goose chase with no conceivably satisfactory ending.
Murakami cleverly gets his answer in first. 1Q84 is full of mock literary criticism of the author’s own writing style. Fictional reviewers discuss stories within the 1Q84 plot. They search in vain for the significance of motifs in Air Chrysalis, the novel that Tengo rewrites. But they remain baffled by the meaning of the twin moons or the Little People and find themselves “left in a pool of mysterious question marks”. Readers of 1Q84 have been warned.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker, Books 1 & 2, RRP£20, 624 pages, Book 3, RRP£14.99, 368 pages