Review of “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

This book was translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. I mention the translators because this is not the book written by the author in Japanese, but a hybrid created by the translators with Murakami’s input. I want to be clear that I did not read the original novel and I have no way of knowing if it was written in the same style, if that is even possible. It’s been my limited experience with Spanish that a translator has to make a lot of judgement calls. Some phrases and ideas simply do not have equivalents in different languages.

This was originally published as three novels that comprise a series. This version included all three as Books One, Two and Three. This choice makes sense because the first two books are clearly not the end of the story, not by any stretch of imagination. Unfortunately, this means that the combined story was almost 1200 pages, longer than War and Peace.

I don’t recall finding a single punctuation or grammatical error. Not one. The writing style is verbose and plodding. Some of the repetition can be explained by the original three-book structure, but it was tiresome in this version. Also, redundancy was comprehensive, extending from the sentence level to deep background material. The story wasn’t complex enough to justify so much repetition.

This book has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s masterpiece. It is a literary novel and it uses several points of view (POV) in presenting the story. Scenes are painfully described, to the extent that opening a door can take a paragraph. There is a lot of reflection mixed in, again unnecessarily redundant. However, the detail of simple actions is not blended with reflection and narration, instead presented in blocks, alternating rather than using action as prompts for introspection. I mention this because there is a lot of both exquisite detail and reflection within a scene, they just aren’t correlated very well. Just as with War and Peace, so much text is devoted to physical details that everything else is explained in huge blocks of either monologues or introspection. There are several very suspenseful scenes that kept me on the edge of my seat, but they always ended with a convenient escape or happy coincidence. In fact, it appeared as if the author went out of his way to avoid any unpleasantness happening to the central characters, no matter how risky their behavior.

Like War and Peace, this is a love story which is identified within the first hundred pages. I felt slightly cheated, however, that the central theme wasn’t developed more. It was alluded to frequently (and repetitively), but not explored as a plot element in its own right. Repeating something again and again isn’t the same thing as close examination. Another common theme between 1Q84 and War and Peace is the introduction of extraneous characters, who appear occasionally but have no impact, then fade into the darkness. They aren’t even red herrings, just meaningless people who gum up the story. This may have been intentional, an opportunity for social commentary or just poking fun at idiosyncratic social conventions. The inevitable conclusion is approached through the POVs of the main characters. Alternating POV scenes is a dynamic way to tell a story that keeps the reader interested, but the author pushed the method beyond reasonable limits; the first two books never varied from the alternation of Tengo and Aomame’s POVs, going so far as to add superfluous (and repetitive) descriptions and reflections. This isn’t a mathematical formula, however, so Murakami lost control several times and briefly let the narrator become omniscient, reading everyone’s mind. Book Three adds a third POV (and thread) but it doesn’t work, becoming even more confusing.

Unlike Tolstoy’s grand historical novel, this is a fantasy love story, not that different from Snow White. None of the rather fantastic occurrences are explained or even delved into deeply. The protagonists repeat their conjectures but don’t add to the explanation. I was left feeling cheated again, this time by not having the background adequately explained, even in fantasy terms. With so many long soliloquies on every topic under the sun, there could have been an explanation better than what the clueless protagonists conjectured.

Again, this may have been intentional. Maybe Murakami wanted to write a long, ponderous, ambiguous, love story with no plot but lots of social commentary because he felt like it. It was, after all, a bestseller in Japan.

I could go on but I’d like to make one point perfectly clear: This novel could have been called Aomame just as easily as 1Q84, although the latter title is catchier. None of the other characters contribute to the story meaningfully.

Despite my overall negative impression of these books (combined into one for the English translation), I was very interested and read far more each day than I would normally. I was caught up in the nitty-gritty representation of the mundane lives of the characters. I ignored the fantasy aspects of the story, and it didn’t hurt that I knew it would have a happy ending.

However, I can’t recommend it unless you want to delve into the lives and problems of the working people of Japan. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that a lot was lost in translation…

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