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Unresolved mystery from the mind of Murakami

by Daniel Morales

In May 2009, Haruki Murakami released “1Q84″ to tremendous sales and mostly positive domestic reviews. The novel, released initially in two parts, follows two, 29-year-old Tokyoites as they are pulled into an alternative version of the year 1984.

1Q84 Book 3, by Haruki Murakami. Shinchosha, 2010, 602 pp., ¥1,900 (hardcover)

We follow Aomame, a fitness instructor and part-time assassin, and Tengo Kawana, a tutor at a cram school and a part-time writer and editor, over the course of 1,055 pages as they are sucked into the intrigues of a fictional religious cult, loosely based on Aum Shinrikyo and radical movements from the 1960s and ’70s.

Despite the novel’s prodigious length, the ending that Murakami provides leaves major sections of the plot unresolved: We don’t know what will happen to Aomame and Tengo, the ultimate fate of the religious cult is unexplained and the powers that control the mysterious bizarro 1984 — dwarves called “Little People,” a set of dualities between “receivers and perceivers” and “mothers and daughters” — are never clearly outlined.

So, it isn’t surprising that he released a third volume of the novel on May 16 — bringing the total page count to 1,657, his longest work to date. Fanfare surrounding the release was tremendous in Japan.

Murakami kept the details of the plot hidden following the premature release of some of the storyline of “Kafka on the Shore” in 2002. Book 3 was just as hyped, leading to midnight release parties at Tokyo bookstores and a million copies sold in less than two weeks. Fans overseas are following just as closely.

Now that Murakami’s trio of translators — Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Phillip Gabriel — has finally caught up with all of his major works, readers in other languages are eager to know what he is up to in his mother tongue.

The one downside to this increase in fame is that Murakami no longer has the luxury of being abridged in translation. Previously, publishers made major cuts in his longer books — “Dance Dance Dance” and “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” This editing managed to disguise one of Murakami’s biggest weaknesses as a writer — his pacing. Readers must be patient as he slowly constructs reality around the characters. They take long walks, meditate on life and loss, sip glasses of single malt and listen to records. At some point Murakami breaks the repetition with a mysterious change in the world he has built, occasionally managing to shock the reader.

In Book 3, Murakami picks up the story where he left off, although he adds an additional perspective. Books 1 and 2 alternated between Aomame and Tengo. Now we also have the point of view of Ushikawa, who readers met earlier as a disheveled messenger/agent of the cult. Ushikawa, having botched a background check of Aomame and allowed her access to the cult leader, whom she puts out of his misery, is forced to do more grunt work in order to hunt down the assassin and, thereby, try to save his hide.

Before long Murakami has all three of the main characters in situations that are typical of his fiction — almost total isolation and solitude in which they can focus on repeating a daily routine. Aomame is locked in an apartment safe house, hiding from the religious cult. She spends her time exercising, cooking and reading Proust — her chapters are, thankfully, short compared to the other characters.

Tengo commutes to a hospital in Chiba where his father is being cared for. There he rents a room at a ryokan where he spends the mornings writing a novel and the afternoons reading out loud to his comatose father from whatever book he happens to be reading, sometimes drafts of his own fiction.

Ushikawa, after following leads that link Aomame and Tengo, decides that the ideal method of tracking down Tengo, who he thinks will lead him to Aomame, is to rent the apartment below him and wait for him to show up. He snaps photos of the residents as they enter and exit, eats canned fruit, smokes cigarettes and ponders his measly existence.

In “1Q84″ there are no surprising reveals, only a few scenes that can be considered suspenseful and nothing mysterious that we didn’t see in Books 1 and 2. In the first few chapters Murakami rehashes the action from the first two books, and due to the three separate perspectives, Murakami forces us to make the same discoveries from different points of view, a weakness that was also present in the first two thirds of the novel; Aomame and Tengo both find out information about the cult and spend time thinking about their shared past.

With Book 3, Murakami provides a true ending for the majority of the plot lines, at least all three of the major characters, but he again fails to flesh out the mythology of the alternate universe and there are questions that linger after the final page (although perhaps not as dramatically as the final page of Book 2).

Who are the Little People? Where did Fukaeri, the elfish 17-year-old author who played a major role in the first two books, run off to? What was the cult in the world of the novel doing? What is Murakami trying to say about religious cults? We don’t see into the machinations of the cult as much as in Book 1 and 2, and the two members we do meet are nothing more than caricatures, referred to throughout the novel only by their haircuts — ponytail and shaved head.

Readers have to work under the assumption that Aomame and Tengo are the good guys because very little is provided to prove that the cult is up to no good.

If you’re a fan of the TV show “Lost,” Book 3 may frustrate or entertain you in the same way the show’s final ending did; Murakami jettisons many of the secrets he built up in Book 1 and 2, choosing instead to focus on the personal relationships of the main characters. Other than Aomame and Tengo, the relationship between Tengo and his father takes center stage briefly.

Even with a whole extra book, Murakami seems to run out of pages toward the end, making the resolution feel rushed. This volume is especially frustrating because Murakami reveals a possible ending — the way to escape from the alternate universe — a third of the way through the book. We must wait for loose ends to be tied up before the characters can attempt escape.

Readers in English will have access to the complete text when “1Q84″ is translated: Books 1 and 2 will be translated into English by Jay Rubin and released in 2011, and Book 3 will follow as a separate edition with a translation by Phillip Gabriel. How English readers will react to this version of Murakami — him at his lengthiest and seemingly least self-edited — will be interesting to see. So far he has been received well domestically, but unfortunately “1Q84″ Book 3 has made it clear that Murakami is at his strongest when writing in a much shorter form.

Publishing a single novel in three volumes is not uncommon in Japan. Many books are divided into two parts to increase their portability. Although “1Q84″ Book 3 wraps up major plot lines, Murakami has not ruled out writing a fourth book to continue the story, or a prequel to tell the back story.