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Why Murakami’s best-selling ’1Q84′ is worth the wait

by Matthew Chozick

When Shinchosha decided not to run a pre-marketing campaign for Haruki Murakami’s new and highly anticipated two-volume novel, the publishing house must have banked on the book creating its own hype. It worked. The void soon filled with publicity and media speculation about the book’s only available information: its title.

In the weeks leading up to the release of “1Q84,” Tokyo’s radio talk-show hosts and television personalities buzzed on and on about probable links to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” (Confused? “1Q84″ is a pun playing on the identical pronunciation of the Japanese number “nine” and the letter “Q.”)

Nothing invites wordplay quite like wordplay. People have been quick to poke fun at “1Q84″ by calling it I.Q.-84. While this sort of joke may seem (excuse the pun) novel, revisiting “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has not slipped out of fashion since the book’s first printing in 1949. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film “Brazil,” inspired by Orwell, had the working title of “1984 and 1/2″ and Anthony Burgess’ two-part tribute to Orwell’s work was entitled “1985.” Now, in “1Q84,” Murakami downsizes Orwell’s totalitarian “Big Brother” regime to a group known as “little people.”

“1Q84″ begins with a female protagonist, Aomame, descending an emergency staircase to an alternative reality. Though oblivious at first of having accomplished this feat, she starts to notice tiny peculiarities such as an adjustment in police firearms. Observations at odds with her memory add up and Aomame becomes increasingly confused. Yet she is, for no particular reason, easy to relate with — a fact that becomes unsettling after we watch her commit a series of murders.

Why does Aomame kill? In the beginning we are not given many clues. One possibility is that she was teased too much for her eccentric surname, which means “Green Bean.” She says: “If I had not been born with this last name, I wonder if my life would have taken a different shape. For example, if I had a common name like Sato, Tanaka or Suzuki, I might lead a bit more of a relaxed life and look upon the world with a bit more of a magnanimous eye.”

The chapters of this 1,060-page novel are divided evenly between Aomame’s bizarre experiences and those of Tengo, a university entrance-exam math prep instructor who has difficulty relating to children. Tengo is of the same ilk as many of Murakami’s heroes: He is relatively passive, often ignored, not terribly successful and manages to find leisure time for sexual intrigue.

Living in limbo, Tengo writes fiction, but this, like his other pursuits, is stuck at a threshold: “I could hardly say that I’m a legitimate teacher; and though I write novels, none have appeared in print so I’m not yet a novelist either.”

Tengo’s lack of experience as a published author does not stop him from agreeing to secretly rewrite a 17-year-old girl’s submission for the sought-after Akutagawa Prize. Tengo’s efforts to dupe the literary award’s selection committee unfolds on a circa 1984 word processor as he reworks the girl’s surreal novel about a commune of little people, a girl and a blind goat.

Murakami uses this novel-inside-a- novel micronarrative to discuss issues ranging from the writing process to cultism. While some of these motifs are a first in Murakami’s repertoire of long fiction, he has honed in on many such themes in nonfiction. For instance, in “Underground” (2000), Murakami interviews 68 people (victims and perpetrators) tied to the cult Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway. Murakami argues that the attack ought not to be written off as the lunacy of a few, but that it reveals the failings of mainstream Japanese society. In a similar vein, “1Q84″ revisits the oppositional relationship of cult and culture by examining the psychological interior of an Aum-like group.

Given the gravity and previous treatment of Murakami’s motifs, readers might imagine “1Q84″ to be a slog to get through, but this is not the case, thanks to subtle humor and fresh narrative details. We meet a spinach-loving German Shepherd, hear of a car accident caused by a sneeze and find a second moon in the sky. “1Q84′s” anecdotes are conveyed mainly by a third-person narrator, which departs from the first-person perspective of Murakami’s previous novels. The perspective allows for the narrator’s distinct voice to bait readers with dramatic, humorous and purposefully imprecise language. For example, we are shocked to learn that Tengo had been romantically involved with at least one of his students, but in the next sentence it is revealed that the affair in question occurred after the girl had left prep school, come of age and entered university.

Readers may wonder if Tengo and Aomame live in a world similar to Orwell’s or if they inhabit our own 1984. After all, Michael Jackson’s hits flow out of car radios, NHK employees go door-to-door collecting television fees, Princess Diana is alive, and Iran-Iraq war news is broadcast.

In “1Q84,” the borders of Murakami’s world and our own become less clear: Strangeness starts to seem familiar and the familiar starts to seem strange. This uncanniness leaves a lot of puzzles open for interpretation, yet vivid detail and sharp wit tether readers to “1Q84″ as it reorients us to the violent circularity of 20th-century history.

Murakami’s fiction has grown increasingly relevant to our understanding of the world today, and this time his craft is more refined than ever.

Decades of Murakami’s experimentation with voice and style have culminated in sophisticated but simple prose that avoids pretension (except when he mocks Japan’s literary culture). In addition, the characters’ intonation, gestures and facial expressions are described with a new degree of precision.

Though the initial sales of “1Q84″ have come from name recognition and media buzz, as time passes, it could be received as Murakami’s magnum opus, or at least the best novel of 200Q. This novel — mired in death and fetish, leavened with humor — may become a mandatory read for anyone trying to get to grips with contemporary Japanese culture.

No release date is set for the English translation of “1Q84,” but those waiting can look forward to another translation from Harvard professor Jay Rubin. Expect rave reviews.

The translations in this article were provided by the writer.