One of the first games of the second round finds Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment pitted against the Japanese juggernaut 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.
Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment is written from the perspective of Olga, a forty-something mother of two whose husband leaves her in the opening pages for a much younger woman. With the first line, the reader is hit with a palatable shock as Olga is abandoned, seemingly without reason, after fifteen years of marriage.
Score one for Italy, 15 seconds in!
Ferrante’s opening is clean and direct, easily remained as a crisp pass from a wing to a perfectly timed cut from a striker, who drives the ball confidently into the high corner. However, as the novel progresses, Olga becomes increasingly helpless in her own rage and fury. In a scene where she encounters her husband and new lover on the street, Olga attacks him, attempting to punish him but succeeding only in making matters worse for herself. Although this begins as a brilliant second scoring attempt, it’s ultimately an untimely yellow card for the Italians, and as Olga loses her grip, the Italian team loses control of the game.
And that’s when Japan takes over. Murakami immediately makes the reader wonder at the creativity of his own world, as Ayomame, his brilliant and enigmatic assassin, escapes a traffic jam and makes the windy descent from a crowded highway. Ayomame experiences a strange feeling, and her usual ability to recall important dates becomes scrambled—but so is the readers’ ability to stay ahead of her. She deftly defies our defenses—a breakaway chance that makes you hold your breath to watch the outcome.
When she emerges past the last line of defenders, she is surprised to see a police officer dressed in a different uniform than usual, carrying a more dangerous gun than usual—she’s wide open, but it’s almost as if the game is a completely different one than she started in. Still, she’s a professional. She performs her assassination, but can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is going on.
At the same time, her teammate Tengo is also attempting to rewrite the playbook—but in this case, by literally rewriting an incredible novel to dupe the literary world into believing this is worthy of a prestigious prize. With this sort of misdirection and intense plotting, it’s no problem for Japan to score the equalizer. Despite her ferocity, Ferrante’s Olga is slipping, and Murakami’s set up is pretty solid—sexy female assassin, alternate realities, literary mystery, and plenty of moral conflict for both narrators. It’s quickly 1-1.
Olga continues to slip into a pitiable state of desperation— she spends hours examining her face in the mirror, trying to divine the reason her husband left her. She has a failed sexual encounter with her downstairs neighbor. She starts to forget to pick her children up for school, becomes unable to feed them. She cannot escape the prison of her own sorrow. Poor Olga can’t do anything right—leaving the Italians flopping around the field like crazy, grabbing their barely-bruised shins. It doesn’t work— they don’t get any calls their way. The Italian team suffers a self-inflicted wound: a devastating own goal. The Italian fans go silent. The Japanese fans go wild.
Thank goodness for half time. Japan leads 2-1, and the Italian morale is undeniably low. It’s clear Olga has basically stopped trying to get herself out of her misery. Yet, all isn’t completely rosy in the Japanese camp, either. Tengo feels increasingly conflicted about re-writing Air Chrysalis, and Ayomame is struggling with with her own feelings of loneliness and regret as well. If I was coaching either team I’d probably make them to watch the scene from Miracle when Kurt Russell fires up the team during the Sweden game (“a bruise on the leg is a hell of a long way from the heart, candy ass!”) But sadly, I’m not the coach here, and also, I’m not so sure the reference would translate.
Anyway. Italy begins the second half with more of the same, as Olga is doing worse than ever. Her apartment is infested by ants. Her son is suffering from a mysterious fever, and her dog, Otto, is acting sick. She realizes that they are all locked into their apartment, as she simply can’t figure out how to turn the key in the front door. If she doesn’t get some help, and quickly, her whole life will fall apart. Despite not being the greatest team-player, she employs her daughter, Ilaria, to stab her in the leg when she notices her mother staring off into space.
Now, sometimes you need a kick in the ass to jump-start a stagnant offense, and yet no real scoring chances come from it: her son is still sick, she’s still locked in the apartment, and the dog is dying. If you’re a fan of the Italians, you probably feel like crying right now…I am a neutral judge, but I admit I shed many tears watching poor Otto’s suffering.
This would be the perfect time for Japan to take advantage and the offensive, and really put this contest away . . . but 1Q84 is just such a damn slow read. While Olga is focused and determine to solve the essential problem behind her misery, Ayomame’s and Tengo’s story lines meander through past and present, taking their time to unwind. It’s a graceful performance, but time is ticking down. Although Japan has maintained possession, they haven’t managed to execute any effective scoring opportunities.
Finally, Italy takes a chance. Olga has seen her life collapse around her, and has hit rock-bottom, and that realization is the water break she needs. She finds herself feeling strangely calm. The door opens without a problem. The dog is laid to rest, and she calls a doctor for the children. More importantly, Olga realizes she is no longer in love with her scumbag husband. Like the mighty phoenix, Italy rises from the ashes and takes possession of the ball, and quickly scores not once, but twice! Olga has overcome her abandonment and has learned what she needs to to do become a courageous, wise women.
However, Olga is exhausted, and there’s still about 500 pages of 1Q84 left to go. It’s as if the refs have added an addition 30 minutes of stoppage time—it’s almost impossibly long, and you have to think Murakami’s got enough talent on his side to at least get a tie. And they are able to come off with a few nail-biting offensive chances, but Italy’s play is just too solid in the end. Shaky in the middle, but a little more dynamic than the slow-and-steady 1Q84. Just when it starts to look dire for Italy, the buzzer sounds—time really wasn’t on Ayomame and Tengo’s side after all.
ITALY WINS 3-2.
Rhea Lyons is a former Open Letter intern (and University of Rochester grad) who is now a literary scout at Franklin & Siegal.
Garcia Marquez was my gateway into non-dead-white-guy authors in translation. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude on a chaise lounge in Waikiki, on a trip when my friend Howard and I drank the pool bar out of Heineken. But I was sober enough most of the time, enough to appreciate that there was more out there to read than my then steady diet of American noir.
The first line in One Hundred Years of Solitude and the first line of the second chapter are the only two sentences I’ve committed to memory—that, and the opening of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Ursula Iguaran’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
I first read Murakami in a hammock in Mexico on my honeymoon. I was too lazy to locate a bookstore in Tecate, but found a galley of Kafka on the Shore in the hotel library. That started a thorough run of Murakami; that’s a hell of a lot of cats in a short period of time.
For years, when asked, I would say that either The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or One Hundred Years of Solitude was my favorite book. The World Cup of Literature rules disallow both of these books because they’re pre-2000 releases. The only Garcia Marquez work that qualifies is Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Six Murakami titles qualify, including Kafka, but The World Cup of Literature entry is the very troubled 1Q84.
There are no match-ups in the first round of The World Cup of Literature that approach the naming rights, product placement, endorsement deals, or star bling of Colombia / Japan. The burden of commercial success over perceived literary merit haunted this match-up since the bracket was posted.
Crikey, it’s fucking hot in Manaus. Sweat is pouring over my eyebrows like Gullfoss (I seriously wish that Eidur Gudjohnsen was in Brazil rather than Luka Modric). The weather favors Team Garcia Marquez who thrives in heat and humidity. Team Murakami usually practices either in the mountains or at the bottom of wells.
1Q84 entered the pitch in its spiffy Chip Kidd designed kit, visibly suffering from over-exposure. The team is comprised entirely of members of former great Murakami sides with the exception of a young striker, Aomame.
The captain of the Colombia side, unlike many footballers who go by one name, has no name. We’ll just call him Jose Arcadio, because there’s one too many of them in One Hundred Years of Solitude. When manager Jose Pekerman realized that his side was a 90 year old journalist and a sleeping virgin on valerian, he decided to park the bus.
Alberto Zaccheroni sent multiple Murakami recurring themes down the flanks. Tengo, the other forward, confused, was unable to deliver any shots on goal, and waited sullenly for a midfielder to drop the ball on his only good foot (think Eddie Johnson or Wayne Rooney).
All Japan advance, all Colombia defense. Two minutes into stoppage time, Aomame realized it might go to PKs and you don’t know what a 90-year-old whore-monger can deliver when needed. Fuka-Eri sent a cross to Aomame who did a roll and scissors, then entered her parallel universe. She reentered the pitch reality on Arcadio’s weak side and finished into the bottom left corner.
Japan 1 – 0 Colombia
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor for Shelf Awareness for Professionals and the Soccer Editor for Shelf Awareness for Readers. In other words, he’s got this nailed.
For all of you Murakami fans out there, embedded below is Haruki Murakami: In Search of this Elusive Writer, an hour-long BBC documentary by Alan Yentob (presenter) and Rupert Edwards (camerawork).
According to this post about it:
Haruki Murakami holds the titles of both the most popular novelist in Japan and the most popular Japanese novelist in the wider world. After publishing Norwegian Wood in 1987, a book often called “the Japanese Catcher in the Rye,” Murakami’s notoriety exploded to such an extent that he felt forced out of his homeland, a country whose traditional ways and — to his mind — conformist mindset never sat right with him in the first place. [. . .]
Rupert Edwards’ camera follows veteran presenter Alan Yentob through Japan, from the midnight Tokyo of After Hours to the snowed-in Hokkaido of A Wild Sheep Chase, in a quest to find artifacts of the supremely famous yet media-shy novelist’s imaginary world. Built around interviews with fans and translators but thick with such Murakamiana as laid-back jazz standards, grim school hallways, sixties pop hits, women’s ears, vinyl records, marathon runners, and talking cats, the broadcast strives less to explain Murakami’s substance than to simply reflect it. If you find your curiosity piqued by all the fuss over 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, you might watch it as something of an aesthetic primer.
The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Will Eells on 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s “total novel” that is pretty much the only work of international literature making its way onto the year-end lists at the “big” review outlets. It’s a huge book, and in order to get all three books out at once, Knopf used two Japanese translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel.
For anyone who hasn’t encountered his reviews in the past, Will is one of our most personal and interesting reviewers. He’s reviewed a fair number of Japanese works for us, but is interested in contemporary lit in general. He’s also an aspiring translator who is working on a really interesting project. (One that still needs a publisher.)
In terms of 1Q84, I think most anyone reading this blog is familiar with Murakami in general, and this novel in particular. It’s a book that generated a shitton of hype, and one that is beloved by some (see Michael Orthofer’s review) while leaving others unimpressed (see Scott Esposito’s review). Will falls squarely in the middle and breaks this down pretty well . . .
It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.
Murakami should have never written Book 3.
Click here to read his full review.
Like many an English-speaking Murakami fan, I have been waiting to read 1Q84 for almost three years. That’s right, three years, since around January 2009, when news reports from Japan were just announcing that Murakami had finished his latest novel, one still without a title and rumored to be twice as long as Kafka on the Shore. And let me tell you, it has been a long wait.
I discovered Murakami at the end of my sophomore year of high school, in a talk intended for the teachers of my school to learn a little more about Japanese art, literature, and film. Five years later, I had read everything by Murakami available in English translation (and soon a few things in Japanese and in unofficial translations). There was probably a year or so period where Murakami was essentially the only literature I was reading. The reason I tell you all this is to inform you that I can only approach reviewing 1Q84, this near 1000-page behemoth, as an unabashed Murakami super-fan, one who has read the majority of his oeuvre multiple times.
I am certainly not alone in this fanaticism. Murakami is one of those authors that just does that to a certain group of readers. The problem with this kind of fanaticism, one that has unfortunately been horribly exacerbated with the rise of Internet culture, is the phenomenon where fans of a certain thing greet the newest thing as either “the best thing ever” or “the worst thing ever.” In Internet parlance: “OMG!!!” vs. “meh.”
1Q84 in particular sets itself up for this deadly dichotomy because of its insane, “total novel”-aspiring length and because it took those two long years after its release in Japan to be translated into English. Murakami even added another 500 pages to it while we were waiting!
It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.
Murakami should have never written Book 3.
But I’ll back up for a moment. If you’re not familiar, 1Q84 follows two protagonists in alternating chapters: the fitness instructor/assassin Aomame and the aspiring novelist Tengo. Aomame is hired by a wealthy individual to secretly murder the most heinous committers of domestic violence and rape, while Tengo is pushed by his editor to secretly rewrite a brilliant but stylistically flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl. To share any more would likely confuse and spoil the novel. Wondering how these two disparate storylines will converge, and how Tengo and Aomame are connected, are but two of the many pleasures in reading this novel.
The following thoughts about the quality of 1Q84 now refer only to Books 1 and 2. I’ll get to Book 3 in a bit.
For all that’s touted about Murakami’s certain blend of magical realism and science fiction, 1Q84 is probably Murakami’s subtlest work to date. New elements and plot wrinkles are introduced slowly, almost quietly along the way. Instead of a mysterious town filled with unicorns, we get an alternate world where the first noticeable difference is the kind of gun the Japanese policemen are using. Despite the relative quietness of the novel, for the first 600 pages, Murakami is pretty good at slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension and the mystery. The first 200 pages had flown by when I realized that I was hooked, but still knew fairly little about what was going on.
I say “pretty good” because there are some missteps along the way. Murakami protagonists have always been prone to biding their time, and there is a lot of pontificating of “what’s going on here?” instead of action. There is also a bit of a problem with repetition. As both Aomame and Tengo are finding out the same things but at different times, all that thinking they do leads to hearing some of the same information a few times more than maybe is needed.
The go-for-broke, “total-novel” approaching attitude lets 1Q84 explore a handful of interesting themes and ideas. In some ways, 1Q84 feels like a culmination of everything he’s ever written. There are elements from pretty much all of his major works. Critics of Murakami have long complained that he is always telling the same basic story, which in some ways has a nugget of truth in it. But none of the reused elements on display in 1Q84 are especially more prominent than another, and in general they feel like background materials, just part of the tapestry. This allows the novel as a whole to feel new and fresh, while making the common Murakamian aspects—disappearing women, parallel/alternate worlds, powerful non-human beings—more like special Easter Eggs spread throughout the text for the fans.
The problem with having so many themes to tie the novel together is that none of them really stick. The relationship between fiction and reality is one theme, but the largest and most compelling theme of 1Q84 is the importance of exercising free will. This is expressed most successfully against the backdrop of religious cults, but even that tends to drift in and out of focus. Murakami gets to vent about many other disappointments in Japanese society, including the literary and publishing culture, the failures of the 1960s student movement against the strong arming of the government, the universal problem of abuse of power by the strong against the weak, but again, only to the extent that they take great prominence in some sections only to fade away again. Eventually, Murakami also undermines his message of good vs. evil with a kind of moral relativism in a way that, instead of allowing for good philosophical rumination, leads to a conflict that, in the end, feels like it has no stakes.
Despite all these criticisms, 1Q84 is genuinely engaging 95% of the time, and the climax of Book 2 brings the work to a near fever pitch. Which brings us to the problem of Book 3.
Book 3, ultimately, squanders every shred of excitement and pacing and brings the book to a screeching halt. A new character is brought in for narration, but the majority of his chapters are spent trying to figure out what the readers already know.
In Japan, these refreshers might have been necessary. Book 3 came out a full year after Books 1 and 2 were released. That’s a long time, and 1Q84 is a long book. It’s very easy to lose track of everything that has been building up. But for English readers, these chapters are frustrating, and excruciatingly boring. For Book 3 to work at all as a part of a larger work, Murakami would’ve had to have somehow continued the excitement found at the end of Book 2 and then increased the tension even more to the “real” climax that should’ve been found at the end of Book 3. That’s basic novel writing. Instead, the climax happens in the middle of the book, followed by what is basically exposition, leading to another, arguably smaller climax.
Book 3 is really more like a sequel to the events of Books 1 and 2. In Japan, it probably felt like one, like a separate, independent story. But in America, presented as the third act in one larger work, Book 3 completely ruins the shape and flow of the novel. This might have been forgiven if the chapters with Aomame and Tengo had more things happening, but frankly, they don’t. Almost nothing happens in Book 3 that renders its very existence necessary. And because this whole fiasco comes at the end, it leaves the reader with a very bitter taste of 1Q84 as a whole.
In the end, 1Q84 succeeds and fails by its own ambition. By throwing everything he possibly could into the pot, Murakami leaves us with a lot of great sequences and a great central mystery, but it also forces us to accept a lot of things we don’t want or need. There’s a short but very memorable section in Book 2 where Murakami seems to be directly expressing frustrations with his critics. It refers to the novel Tengo is ghostwriting but it could refer to almost anything in the Murakami oeuvre, and especially to 1Q84 itself:
One reviewer concluded his piece, “As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious questions marks. This may well be the author’s intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’ While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture.”
Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story “put together in an exceptionally interesting way” that “carries the reader along to the very end,” who could possibly call such a writer “lazy”?
The greatest irony of that passage is that if Murakami had ended 1Q84 at Book 2, this passage would’ve perfectly represented the merits of this gigantic, ambitious, flawed novel. But instead, Murakami chose to extend the adventure into a third book, in a way that seems to promise new levels of understanding but ultimately failing to deliver anything worthwhile. (This is made all the more tragic for the way the translations of Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel don’t feel like separate translations at all. No easy task.) If you haven’t yet read 1Q84, I implore you to do so. Just take a good, long break before you start reading Book 3, or, do yourself a favor, and don’t even read Book 3 at all.
This past weekend, in advance of today’s drop date for 1Q84, Sam Anderson wrote a long, very well-textured profile of Murakami entitled The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami.
To be honest, I’m not the biggest Murakami fan in the world. I really like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and to a lesser extent The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but could do without Kafka on the Shore, and was rather disappointed when I recently read A Wild Sheep Chase. That said, everything I read about 1Q84 makes me more and more excited about this book. (Which I wish Random House would send us. We’ve been asking for months, and I will happily publish a review of it here if they’d just send us a copy . . . Grrr.)
First off, this book is the very definition of massive. According to Anderson, it is “932 pages long and nearly a foot tall — the size of an extremely serious piece of legislation.” In other words, perfect for the Rochester winter.
Secondly, there’s a religious cult involved. I’m a sucker for reading, hearing, or watching about religious cults. I love them. (In an intellectual, curious way, you know?) And that’s just the beginning of the weirdness this book contains:
1Q84 is not, actually, a simple story. Its plot may not even be fully summarizable — at least not in the space of a magazine article, written in human language, on this astral plane. It begins at a dead stop: a young woman named Aomame (it means “green peas”) is stuck in a taxi, in a traffic jam, on one of the elevated highways that circle the outskirts of Tokyo. A song comes over the taxi’s radio: a classical piece called the “Sinfonietta,” by the Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek — “probably not the ideal music,” Murakami writes, “to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” And yet it resonates with her on some mysterious level. As the “Sinfonietta” plays and the taxi idles, the driver finally suggests to Aomame an unusual escape route. The elevated highways, he tells her, are studded with emergency pullouts; in fact, there happens to be one just ahead. These pullouts, he says, have secret stairways to the street that most people aren’t aware of. If she is truly desperate she could probably manage to climb down one of these. As Aomame considers this, the driver suddenly issues a very Murakami warning. “Please remember,” he says, “things are not what they seem.” If she goes down, he warns, her world might suddenly change forever.
She does, and it does. The world Aomame descends into has a subtly different history, and there are also — less subtly — two moons. (The appointment she’s late for, by the way, turns out to be an assassination.) There is also a tribe of magical beings called the Little People who emerge, one evening, from the mouth of a dead, blind goat (long story), expand themselves from the size of a tadpole to the size of a prairie dog and then, while chanting “ho ho” in unison, start plucking white translucent threads out of the air in order to weave a big peanut-shaped orb called an “air chrysalis.” This is pretty much the baseline of craziness in “1Q84.” About halfway through, the book launches itself to such rarefied supernatural heights (a levitating clock, mystical sex-paralysis) that I found myself drawing exclamation points all over the margins.
For decades now, Murakami has been talking about working himself up to write what he calls a “comprehensive novel” — something on the scale of The Brothers Karamazov, one of his artistic touchstones. (He has read the book four times.) This seems to be what he has attempted with “1Q84”: a grand, third-person, all-encompassing meganovel. It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it — a book that, even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a single human brain can hold.
That last paragraph is another reason I want to read this: it’s a blatant display of writerly ambition. Granted, short novels can be much more fulfilling and tight and readable in a relatively normal amount of time, but there’s something compelling about a wooly, extravagant, discursive, life-consuming novel. Like Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest or Cryptonomicon. I think it’s a boy thing.
Another part of Anderson’s piece that is really interesting (and relates nicely to this blog) is about translation in relation to Murakami’s influences, and the way that his books have a tendency seep into parts of your life:
Murakami’s fiction has a special way of leaking into reality. During my five days in Japan, I found that I was less comfortable in actual Tokyo than I was in Murakami’s Tokyo — the real city filtered through the imaginative lens of his books. [. . .] I became hyperaware, as I wandered around, of the things Murakami novels are hyperaware of: incidental music, ascents and descents, the shapes of people’s ears.
In doing all of this I was joining a long line of Murakami pilgrims. People have published cookbooks based on the meals described in his novels and assembled endless online playlists of the music his characters listen to. Murakami told me, with obvious delight, that a company in Korea has organized “Kafka on the Shore” tour groups in Western Japan, and that his Polish translator is putting together a 1Q84-themed travel guide to Tokyo.
Sometimes the tourism even crosses metaphysical boundaries. Murakami often hears from readers who have “discovered” his inventions in the real world: a restaurant or a shop that he thought he made up, they report, actually exists in Tokyo. In Sapporo, there are now apparently multiple Dolphin Hotels — an establishment Murakami invented in A Wild Sheep Chase. After publishing 1Q84, Murakami received a letter from a family with the surname “Aomame,” a name so improbable (remember: “green peas”) he thought he invented it. He sent them a signed copy of the book. The kicker is that all of this — fiction leaking into reality, reality leaking into fiction — is what most of Murakami’s fiction (including, especially, 1Q84) is all about. He is always shuttling us back and forth between worlds.
This calls to mind the act of translation — shuttling from one world to another — which is in many ways the key to understanding Murakami’s work. He has consistently denied being influenced by Japanese writers; he even spoke, early in his career, about escaping “the curse of Japanese.” Instead, he formed his literary sensibilities as a teenager by obsessively reading Western novelists: the classic Europeans (Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Dickens) but especially a cluster of 20th-century Americans whom he has read over and over throughout his life — Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. When Murakami sat down to write his first novel, he struggled until he came up with an unorthodox solution: he wrote the book’s opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese. This, he says, is how he found his voice. Murakami’s longstanding translator, Jay Rubin, told me that a distinctive feature of Murakami’s Japanese is that it often reads, in the original, as if it has been translated from English.
You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation. The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man) — watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.
For all the Murakami fans out there, you can read the first chapter of 1Q84 (Q-teen Eighty-Four) on Facebook by “liking” this page.
1Q84 is due out on October 25th from Random House. It’s translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin (first two volumes) and Philip Gabriel (third volume).
This week’s New Yorker includes an excerpt from 1Q84 (pronounced “Q-teen Eighty Four”) the forthcoming (nearly here!!) new novel by Haruki Murakami:
At Koenji Station, Tengo boarded the Chuo Line inbound rapid-service train. The car was empty. He had nothing planned that day. Wherever he went and whatever he did (or didn’t do) was entirely up to him. It was ten o’clock on a windless summer morning, and the sun was beating down. The train passed Shinjuku, Yotsuya, Ochanomizu, and arrived at Tokyo Central Station, the end of the line. Everyone got off, and Tengo followed suit. Then he sat on a bench and gave some thought to where he should go. “I can go anywhere I decide to,” he told himself. “It looks as if it’s going to be a hot day. I could go to the seashore.” He raised his head and studied the platform guide.
At that point, he realized what he had been doing all along.
He tried shaking his head a few times, but the idea that had struck him would not go away. He had probably made up his mind unconsciously the moment he boarded the Chuo Line train in Koenji. He heaved a sigh, stood up from the bench, and asked a station employee for the fastest connection to Chikura. The man flipped through the pages of a thick volume of train schedules. He should take the 11:30 special express train to Tateyama, the man said, and transfer there to a local; he would arrive at Chikura shortly after two o’clock. Tengo bought a Tokyo-Chikura round-trip ticket. Then he went to a restaurant in the station and ordered rice and curry and a salad.
Going to see his father was a depressing prospect. He had never much liked the man, and his father had no special love for him, either. He had retired four years earlier and, soon afterward, entered a sanatorium in Chikura that specialized in patients with cognitive disorders. Tengo had visited him there no more than twice—the first time just after he had entered the facility, when a procedural problem required Tengo, as the only relative, to be there. The second visit had also involved an administrative matter. Two times: that was it.
In my opinion, Murakami is best taken as a whole. Individual sections are generally fine, but the accumulation of strange images is what makes his books so memorable. (My favorite is still Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and not just for the cool title.)
The only person I know who has already had a chance to read 1Q84 is Robert Sindelar from Third Place Books, who gave the novel 5 stars on GoodReads and started his review with this:
Easily one of my favorite Murakami novels. There is a lot here for his fans sink their teeth into. One of the advantages of the novel being so long is that the atmospheric hauntingly lonely never land that you travel to in most Murakami books, sustains for so long here. This book crept into my dreams and popped its head up regularly in my daily routines. On a subtle level I kept expecting to see the world of the book everywhere I looked.
For now, you can read the whole New Yorker excerpt here.
One of the most anticipated books of the year has to be Murakami Haruki’s (or Haruki Murakami’s) 1Q84, an epically long book that Random House is bringing out in October.1 And to warm up the publicity machine, they just released an image of the cover and a blog post from Chip Kidd discussing the design.
Logistically the title is a book designer’s dream, because its unique four characters so easily adapt it to a very strong, iconic treatment. The plot follows two seemingly unconnected stories that eventually weave together. The first involves a woman named Aomame, who in the opening scene finds herself descending a service staircase off a busy elevated highway in Tokyo to escape a traffic jam. Once she gets to the bottom and out onto ground level, she eventually comes to believe that she has entered an alternate reality, one only slightly different than what she had known. She refers to this new dimension in her mind as 1Q84 (the book takes place in 1984 and in Japanese ‘Q’ sounds just like ‘9′), with the Q standing for “Question Mark. A world that bears a question.” This concept becomes one of the novel’s major themes.
Upon reading the manuscript, it soon occurred to me that the duality of Aomame’s situation could be represented by an interaction of the book’s jacket with the binding/cover underneath. By using a semi-transparent vellum for the jacket, and printing the woman’s image in a positive/negative scheme with the title on the outside layer and the rest of her on the binding, once the jacket is wrapped around the book it ‘completes’ the picture of her face. But something odd is definitely going on, and before the reader even reads a word, he or she is forced to consider the idea of someone going from one plane of existence to another.
1 Now I’m not going to tell the largest publisher in America how to do their job, but please please please please please don’t publish this as a straightforward run-of-the-mill hardcover. This isn’t Stieg Larsson or Suze Orman—it’s a book that could be a major cultural event. And not only is the idea of paying $30 for a large, unwieldy tome totally insane, it’s also incredibly passé, as demonstrated by the genius marketing of 2666. I’m guessing you—the anthropomorphized version of an inanimate, heartless corporation that exists in my mind—are thinking that your “mature” readers will shell out way too much of their retirement income to read this “serious literary work they heard about on The NPR,” whereas the hipsters will download the $15 ebook and show off their iPads by flipping imaginary pages and posing in subway stations. And sure, you may well be right. But that’s totally irrelevant. What matters here is long-term image management. You don’t want to be “that dinosaur press” anymore, do you? I mean, you must know we all laugh behind your back at parties about how out-of-touch you are with your non-musty offices and your corporate stationary. Book publishing isn’t about money, it’s about showing off how smart you are and about creating intellectual objects that other people crave. Will I read 1Q84 when it comes out? For sure. But if it’s in a multi-volume form housed in a cardboard slipcase, I’ll read it in public. Rather than completely concede to the advent of e-everything, it would be a public service to the last remaining readers if you gave us all an object that we could cherish. An object that is inherently cooler (in a retro way) than the iPad. Instead of having Chip Kidd just design the cover, give him the opportunity to create a stunning object. Or don’t. I’m sure you’ll still make enough profit off this to feel justified. Justified, but incredibly empty on the inside.
I’m home sick—damn winter colds that are even resistant to Advil Cold & Sinus, the Wonder Drug—so it’s a perfect day for a guest post from intern Will Eells. You might remember Will from his review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, and he will be writing more reviews for us in the future, including one of “The Changeling,” the new Kenzaburo Oe novel coming out from Grove this spring. Anyway, Will’s a huge Murakami fan—even did a translation of a previously untranslated Murakami story for his translation class project—and was very intrigued by this situation regarding the new Murakami novel . . .
It was reported a few days ago that Haruki Murakami’s newest novel 1Q84 (my favorite way of saying this is “Q-teen Eighty-four”) has all but demolished sales records this year and is the top-selling book in Japan for 2009, selling at least a million copies for both volume one and volume two. From The Literary Saloon:
Tohan said 1Q84 was the first literary work to top the year’s best-seller list since it began compiling the data in 1990.
Who is the competition? Mainichi Daily news offers some (worrying) insight in their own report, Murakami’s 1Q84 tops 2009 bestseller ranking:
“In second place was 読めそうで読めない間違いやすい漢字 (Easily confused kanji which look readable but aren’t), published by Futami Shobo Publishing Co. Third place was secured by ドラゴンクエスト9 星空の守り人 大冒険プレイヤーズガイ (Great adventure player’s guide to Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies), published by Shueisha.”
It’s pretty cool to see that Murakami is finally seen as someone “literary” by the Japanese after years of being considered light pop-lit (he’s got an awesomely bitter short story called “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman about his disgust with Japanese literary critics), and it’s even cooler to see that people are genuinely excited about his work. On the other hand, although Japan is typically thought of to be a nation of readers, their top selling books are overall pretty lame, even after accounting the fact that almost every person and their dog is playing Dragon Quest IX in Japan right now. Looking through the rest of the top 10, I only discovered one(!!) other piece of fiction, and the rest of the list being rather light-weight non-fiction books like new weight-loss and “health” guides and more language trivia.
All of this means of course that American publishers are also very excited and want to get the book out as fast as possible. And of course Knopf and Vintage, who have published all of Murakami’s other work in America, will be publishing 1Q84 as well.
Normally this would pose no problem at all, but Murakami himself is throwing a huge curveball towards the American publishers. And how is he doing that? He’s currently writing Volume 3, and it’s not even being released in Japan until next summer.
So what does Knopf do now? They want to get it published as soon as they can (but without rushing, so we can have a good translation . . . right, Knopf?), but I can’t think of any single work that was published in more than one installment in the U.S. Apparently, this is the solution:
UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada, have been acquired and Harvill Secker will publish the first two volumes in a single edition simultaneously with Knopf in the States in September 2011. The paperback editions will be published by Vintage. The first two books are being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel.
This, my friends, is madness. Knopf is fusing volume one and volume two into a single work, as they assumedly planned to all along, but not only can they not wait for volume three to come out, they won’t give Jay Rubin the extra time to translate it and are handing the next part for Philip Gabriel to work on separately.
It’s fascinating, and a little scary, to have two translators working on what’s officially supposed to be one work. By now, Jay Rubin has translated the majority of Murakami’s works, and besides the early stuff Alfred Birnbaum tackled, Philip Gabriel has been responsible for a good chunk of Murakami’s work as well, including Kafka on the Shore. They’re both great translators that I trust with Murakami’s work. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to translate 1Q84 the same way, so it poses some interesting questions as to what’s going to happen. Will they be communicating with each other? Will they be reading each other’s manuscripts and collaborating? Since typically Japanese editors don’t exercise the kind of creative control that Western editors are typically thought to have, Jay Rubin is known to act as an editor for Murakami as he translates (which he even does with Murakami’s involvement, which in one case resulted in revisions in the Japanese from the hardcover edition to the paperback), but does Philip Gabriel have the same editorial vision? There’s no telling how a sudden third volume will effect 1Q84 as a whole anyway, so how will that affect how the readers see the novel both in the original and in the translation? Will Vintage’s paperback version be one or two books?
It’s a lot of stuff to think about, and we won’t find out what happens until both volumes are finally published sometime in late 2011.
Murakami is currently working on the story, aiming for a release next summer, sources said. Sales of the first and second volumes, which hit the market in late May, have sold more than 2.2 million copies in all.
The ads, posted in stations including Tokyo and Yokohama, say, “We will continue receiving invaluable things from the story.”
It shows three Qs — a blue Q to go with the yellowish green one on the cover of the first volume and the orange one on the second. Shinchosha said it will leave it up to the readers to imagine what the ad means.
The new Murakami book — 1Q84 — is now available in Japan, and this review at Neojaponisme is the first comprehensive take on the book that I’ve come across. Long review for a long book that sounds pretty intriguing (if not in need of a bit of editing):
1Q84 sprawls 1055 pages in the hardback version and chronicles a large portion of Japanese history in passing, but the main narrative concerns just a handful of characters over a six-month period in 1984. Murakami uses his favorite device to frame the novel – alternating storylines with separate protagonists that become more closely linked as the plot thickens. These protagonists are Aomame, a fitness and martial arts instructor in Tokyo who grew up in a fictional missionary group called the Shōninkai (証人会, literally “Association of Witnesses”), and Kawana Tengo, a prep school math instructor and aspiring writer who has never met his mother. [. . .]
First, something is rotten in Tokyo in 1984. Numerous intrigues are described as usankusai (胡散臭い): fishy, shady or suspicious. An editor conspires to ghost-write a novel and have it win the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious award for up and coming writers. A secret religious cult (loosely based on radical movements of the ’60s and religious cults like Aum Shinrikyo) plots some terrible evil in its Yamanashi Prefecture compound. A wealthy, landed woman wages a covert war on misogyny. The world undergoes abrupt, strange, and highly specific changes, and that trip to the dark side of the moon is more literal than you might expect.
These schemes draw in our protagonists like whirlpools, bringing in another key theme: hikareru (惹かれる) (to be drawn in) and related words make frequent appearances. Tengo is convinced to play ghost writer by his editor Komatsu, but he also admits to being equally drawn in by the book itself, which is titled “Kūki sanagi” 『空気さなぎ』(”The Air Chrysalis”) and written by the quiet 17-year-old storyteller Fukada Eriko. Aomame is recruited by the unnamed wealthy lady and drawn into her conspiracy. [. . .]
As Aomame and Tengo get closer and closer, their connection is revealed, and they seem to be fighting for similar objectives. The ending Murakami provides suggests that one of the characters might become “the egg” cracked on “the wall” of the system he referred to in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize earlier this year, while the other may battle on and try to recover the past. By no measure is the action complete within the 1055 pages of these two volumes; the way things are resolved points to the final line of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Little Dog,” a tale of two lovers who finally resolve to elope at the end of the story: “…it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.” [. . .]
Parts of 1Q84 rival Murakami’s best writing. The tale of Tengo’s father, who tried his luck as a settler in Manchuria before returning to Japan to work as a collection man for NHK; Tengo’s married girlfriend’s ominous dream she relates to him in bed at the end of Book 1 (remarkably similar in style and feel to boku’s dream in “The Twins and the Sunken Continent”); and a story within the story about a town run completely by cats from a book that Tengo reads, are three notable examples. But overall, the book feels long, inconsistent, and occasionally repetitive. Over the course of 1,000 pages, characters and themes both float in and out of the narrative, many of them seemingly forgotten by the end of Book 2. Religious cults are discussed in depth in Book 1 only to be left out of Book 2. Tengo’s father is an important part of the whole book, but it is unclear how his past is connected to the rest of the book. Ebisuno-sensei, Fukaeri’s foster father, has most of his action offstage, and we never even meet Azami, Fukaeri’s foster sister. Most of the book is spent going over the past of the characters, so much so that plot discussion more extensive than that given above would start to reveal some of the only development in the novel’s present — plot that Murakami made no secret of trying to keep a secret in the run up to the publishing date.
The Millions has an interesting post about the forthcoming Haruki Murakami book. Apparently, after details about Kafka on the Shore leaked out, Murakami “insisted that his fans be allowed to approach the new book with no preconceptions,” so info on the new novel is pretty scarce. The title is 1Q84, it will release on May 29th, and it will be published in two volumes. (Murakami has referred to it as “his most ambitious work to date and a ‘real doorstop.’ “)
I’m not as much as a Murakami fanatic as some people (although I really like Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), but the strange title and complete lack of concrete information has me pretty intrigued about this novel. And I love the speculation—it’s like interpreting clues from Lost!:
One popular theory claims the book is inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (the number nine in Japanese is pronounced like the English letter Q, thus in Japanese 1984 and 1Q84 have the same pronunciation). Another finds inspiration for the title in the novella The True Story of Ah Q, by Chinese novelist Lu Xun, an early 20th century writer and intellectual.
The latter opinion has been fueled by the comments of a prominent Tokyo University professor Shozo Fujii, who argues that Lu Xun is one of Murakami’s primary influences. The 1 in the book’s title, he argues, should be read as the personal pronoun I. In other words, I am Q. What the 84 might stand for is unclear. Fujii’s analysis of Murakami’s work breaks with the commonly held view of Murakami’s influences, primarily Western writers and literary heavyweights like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dostoyevsky (a view confirmed by Murakami himself). Nevertheless, Fujii’s theory about 1Q84‘s meaning has developed a large following online, and has been bolstered by his close readings of Chinese literary themes in Murakami’s early novels, Hear the Wind Sing and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
I’m sure this will be available in English in 2012 or so, although probably in an abridged format . . .
I’ve never spent $17 on a magazine except once: the January 2007 issue of GQ Korea. I was in a Korean bookstore in Los Angeles, looking for Yi Sang’s fiction (I’ll talk about Yi Sang in detail later, such a weird, beautiful writer) when I saw the magazine, with Matt Damon on the cover. Anyways, I bought the magazine because it had a 10-pp interview with the elusive Haruki Murakami, who shuns interviews in general. Perhaps the fact that the interviewer was not a professional literary critic, but a journalism student at University of Hawaii, made Murakami warm up to her – I’ve never read any other Murakami interview in which he is as relaxed as he is in the GQ Korea interview. The interviewer’s name is Jin Young Lee, and I have no idea how she tracked Murakami down in Hawaii. I’ll be posting segments from her interview in three parts or so, in my hasty and imperfect translation.
The Kiriyama Book Prize was established in 1996 to recognize outstanding books about the Pacific Rim and South Asia that encourage greater mutual understanding of and among the peoples and nations of this vast and culturally diverse region, and the 2007 winners were just announced.
Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman won for fiction, but according to the Seattle Times, he “turned down the prize ‘on religious grounds.’ “
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One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .
The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .
Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .
When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .