First published on 29 Sep 2011. Updated on 11 Nov 2011.
Lonely, alienated characters in the big city. Secret symbols hinting at fissures in the fabric of reality. Erotic obsession, literary ambition, sinister cults and classical music. Fans of Japan’s master of the urban uncanny, Haruki Murakami, will recognise in his new novel many of the tropes and concerns of his earlier work. They’ll also be familiar with the perception games he likes to play – to read 1Q84 is to experience the pleasurable sensation of having your brain folded and reconfigured like a sheet of origami paper.
The title is a pun on 1984 (in Japanese, nine is pronounced kyu). The book is not an Orwellian dystopia, but, like Orwell’s great novel about a Stalinist England, it plays with notions of alternative worlds, both literal and literary. Parallel storylines introduce us to two seemingly unrelated characters – a female contract killer and a male would-be novelist, in Tokyo, in the year 1984.
Tengo is a gifted maths lecturer who loves to write, but has nothing to say. He’s approached by an editor to take part in a literary fraud – to rework a novel by a 17-year-old schoolgirl, Fuka-Eri, that tells an astonishing story but is poorly written. Entering into this conspiracy puts Tengo’s career at risk before it has even begun. It also puts him in danger when it transpires that Fuka-Eri’s bizarre tale may not be entirely fictional.
Aomame, meanwhile, is a gym instructor who pursues a vigilante sideline in murdering evil men at the behest of a wealthy old dowager. Sexually voracious but unable to love, the beautiful assassin starts to suspect she has slipped into an alternate reality where the moon has a twin and a secretive religious sect called Sakigake poses a violent threat to society in general and to young girls in particular.
Along the way the author introduces us to such curiosities as an air chrysalis, an exploding dog and a town of cats. We learn of a fabled race of ‘Little People,’ who are Murakami’s metaphor for the radical undercurrents hidden within Japanese society. Having been the centre of his own literary cult for years Murakami slips easily into the voice of the leader of an actual cult, who’s not a million miles away from the Marlon Brando of Apocalypse Now.
This is a novel of mind-bending ideas and beguiling storytelling. It’s also langorously sexy, in that inimitable Murakami way. An intimate epic, it ought to confirm Murakami’s status as one of fiction’s greatest living fabulists.
1Q84 Random House, published Tue 1 Nov, RRP $39.95