Descent into the Realm of Magical Realism

Magical realism. It is a diverse dimension of the world of literature that has belatedly become in vogue. With the rise of prolific storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, and, of course, Haruki Murakami, this unlikely fusion of the fantastical and the realistic has seized the world of literature. The surrealistic realms of magical realism have pushed the boundaries of storytelling and gave reading experience a different texture, a distinct complexion. Magical realism is an experience that is on a league of its own.

Renowned Japanese raconteur Haruki Murakami takes the readers on the same magical realistic ride with his cult fiction, 1Q84. It is a sprawling story set in 1984 Tokyo. Over a span of eight months, the narrative alternates between two seemingly unconnected individuals: Aomame and Tengo. They seem to have no connection at all and were living in perfect harmony until peculiar events started disrupting the flow of things.

“As I see it, you are living with something that you keep hidden deep inside. Something heavy. I felt it from the first time I met you. You have a strong gaze, as if you have made up your mind about something. To tell you the truth, I myself carry such things around inside. Heavy things. That is how I can see it in you.” ~ Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Aomame is a martial arts instructor and physical therapist who was hired by a dowager to kill abusive men. On her way to one of her assignments, she got stuck in traffic on the expressway. With the prodding of a taxi driver, she climbed down an emergency stairway to the subway. When she reemerges from the shortcut, she found herself in an eerily different exit. But it wasn’t only the exit that was different. The world has shifted and the Aomame found herself in a different territory, not the world she perceived it to be. “She sensed that she had found her way into a region that was completely foreign to her – a deep ocean trench, say, or the surface of an unknown asteroid: the kind of place it might be possible to reach with great effort, but from which return was impossible.” 

In another part of Tokyo, Tengo, a mathematics tutor who aspires to be a famous novelist, was given by his editor an intriguing proposal – to ghostwrite (not exactly ghostwrite but hallway between writing and rewriting) an inelegant but addictive novella. Written by a 17-year old high school student named Fuka-Eri, Air Chrysalis, is a story that contains, among many things, “little people” crawling from the mouth of dead goats. The collaboration was, as predicted by Tengo’s editor, national sensation.

Air Chrysalis was more than just a book. It was also catalyst in drawing Aomame and Tengo together. Sharing a history, they had a brief encounter when they were younger and even though they have not seen each other for 20 years, the vivid emotions and longing of that fateful day remained as strong as their first encounter. As their stories converge around the enigmatic cult Sakigake and its head (simply referred to as The Leader), every fragment of the story– Tengo, Fuka Eri, Air Chrysalis, Aomame, and the dowager who hires her – is connected by an invisible thread.

The novel’s first aspect that one notices is its length, which is uncharacteristic of the typical Murakami work. 1Q84 was, after all, originally published in three books in two volumes. Beyond the physical, however, there is more to the book. The length belies the complexity of the journey that it beholds. Overcome the overwhelming nearly thousand-pages and you’ll find yourself in a once in a lifetime roller coaster ride.

“I am nothing. I’m like someone who’s been thrown into the ocean at night, floating all alone. I reach out, but no one is there. I call out, but no one answers. I have no connection to anything.” ~ Haruki Murakami

Shifting realities and parallel worlds/dimensions are plot devices that are very common in Haruki Murakami’s works. These are elements that Murakami has mastered, turning it into a skill in his vast literary repertoire. 1Q84 echoed these elements.  Whilst alternate worlds in previous Murakami works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and Sputnik Sweetheart are places where the male protagonist searches for the female protagonist, 1Q84’s alternate dimension is concerned more on the possibilities of being “irretrievably lost”, a phrase that is repeatedly used by the characters. Time, hence, is a key element in the novel.

Romance sounds simple. But not when Murakami has to deal with it. He cuts up the flowers, dices the chocolates, sautés the remainders and cooks up something unexpected. On the surface, 1Q84 is your typical destiny-entwined romance story. It percolates into something more than that. It is Haruki Murakami, after all, that we’re dealing with. To make it all more interesting, he conjures a world where reality shifts and everything tends to become a huge question mark. The story’s various elements and storylines echo the taxi driver’s cryptic message: “things are not what they seem.”

Over the course of his literary career, Murakami has proven himself a cult writer. At least two cults are present in the story – Sakigake (which means forerunner, precursor or pioneer) and the Society of Witnesses, a Christian sect whose members refuse surgery. The Sakigake is a reference to the Aum Shinrikyo sect who carried out the deadly Tokyo subway sarin (nerve-gas) attack in 1995. Murakami wrote about the same subject in his book Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.

The same cult-like patterns can be observed in several relationships in the novel such as the connection between Tengo and his editor. It is also palpable in the relationship between Aomame and the Dowager who runs a shelter for female victims of domestic violence. Beyond the romance and the cult subjects, the story builds up to be a potent suspense. At its core, it is a thriller with many elements shrouded in uncanny veils of mystery. The action-flick style worked well with the rose-tinted romance.

“I’m tired of living unable to love anyone. I don’t have a single friend – not one. And, worst of all, I can’t even love myself. Why is that? Why can’t I love myself? It’s because I can’t love anyone else. A person learns how to love himself through the simple acts of loving and being loved by someone else. Do you understand what I am saying? A person who is incapable of loving another cannot properly love himself.” ~ Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Unfailingly, Murakami brings in finesse to his stories sprinkling it with cultural touchstones. This refines the story and helps anchor the readers despite the shifting dimensions. There were several references to seminal books and authors such as Anton Chekhov, Stanley Kubrick, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lewis Carroll, Macbeth, and Carl Jung. Murakami, renowned for his passion in jazz music, also incorporated musical allusions to the story. There was a repeated reference to Leo Janácek’s Sinfonietta.

The presence of plot holes is something prevalent in Murakami works. There were several story lines and questions in the 1Q84 that were left unanswered. Take for instance the case of the ephemeral concept of the Little People. Who are they and what role do they really play in the narrative? It may be intentional but these were left for the reader’s imagination to resolve. It is his inimitable prose style that sets Murakami apart from his contemporaries, even if it meant punitive censures from his critics.

The events that were central to the story were rendered a mixture of fantasy, surrealism and a touch of reality. These peculiar events’ were antithesis to the characters; they were grounded on reality and were created as human as possible. The touch of reality in Murakami’s unhurried and vivid depictions of daily activities made this possible. His intimate recapturing of his characters’ inner chatters made them easier for readers to connect to. The sincerity of their confusion and their unimpeded expression about time, consciousness or moral choices reflect the contemporary readers’ concerns.

“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” ~ Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

What beacons through the complex and complicated narrative, however, is not its fantasy and surrealism. It is its dive into the consciousness and its subtle message of hope that redefines the outré novel. It is these elements that changed the novel’s complexion and elevated it despite the peculiarities, the nuances and the shifting realities. It was pleasing how, in spite the otherworldliness, the novel commences to its simplest element – love:

“They sat on a park bench, held hands, and told each other their stories hour after hour. They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. What a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It’s a miracle, a cosmic miracle.”

Reading 1Q84 is like ingesting a food that is unfamiliar to one’s palate. Its blend of fantasy, religion, sex, hope, loneliness, and romance is bizarre that leaves a different aftertaste. It was seasoned with a healthy dose of surrealism and was sprinkled with a serving of fantasy. More importantly, these ingredients were tastefully mixed and cooked by Murakami’s capable hands into a scrumptious literary delicacy. It is rare and only a master chef like Murakami is capable of dishing out such delicate handcrafted menu. In this instance, 1Q84, is not just about reading, it is about, tasting something new, rather experiencing a unique moment that lingers.

Rating:

88%

1Q84 was a baptism of fire as it was my initiation into both the world of magical realism and into the works of Haruki Murakami. It aroused a mixture of emotions – amazement at the varying elements, excitement at the new experience, and even exasperation at its sheer length. On the surface, it seems a very complicated story but when reduced to bite sizes, it is a very simple story. The different elements, especially the surrealism, made it a complicated and complex story. Most of the time, complication and complexity are the elements that draw readers in.

I struggled a lot. I was shell shocked as well at how offhanded Murakami dealt with some sensitive subjects. I would experience the same struggle with my next two Murakamis. I was so exasperated at the experience that I nearly gave up on Haruki Murakami. Thankfully I didn’t. Despite my love-hate relationship with him, he remains to be one of my favorite authors.

Do I recommend this novel? Yes, for its brilliant storytelling. However, it would be much preferable if readers read Murakami’s other works such as Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore to be prepared to the novel’s complexities.

Book Specs

Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2011
Number of Pages: 925 pages
Genre: Magical Realism, Mystery, Romance

Synopsis

The year 1984 ad the city is Tokyo.

A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 – “Q is for ‘question mark’. A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s – 1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of the most revered contemporary writers.

About the Author

Learn more about Haruki Murakami by clicking here.

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