Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

When 1Q84 was published in Japan in 2009, bookshops all but sold out within a day. More than 1 million copies were sold in that first month alone. Ever since, English language readers have eagerly awaited its release. In an effort to expedite publication, Murakami’s US publishers Knopf took the unusual step of commissioning his two regular translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, to simultaneously work on different parts of the book. Rubin translated Book One and Book Two, published together here, Gabriel, Book Three which is published next week.

The tactic appears to have worked. Expectation has built steadily over the past two years, pre-orders have gone through the roof, and bookshops even opened at midnight to satisfy the demand of Murakami’s dedicated fans. Like the Harry Potter phenomenon, this hype has inspired people to have fun with books which is never a bad thing in my book. But away from all this Murakami-mania to which I and the entire media has whole-heartedly subscribed, the question of whether it is any good remains largely unanswered. Quite honestly, the answer is no. And yes. I cannot decide. Is 1Q84 the Magnum Opus that sums up Murakami’s worldview? Or an experiment with narrative that badly backfires? Very possibly it is both at the same time.

It is a long book – some 600 pages in Book One and Book Two alone, a further 350 in Book Three. The story is a familiar one: twenty-something drifters have their lives thrown into question by a series of unusual events over which they have little control. All the familiar Murakami tropes are there: Jazz, classical music, and 1960s rock provides the soundtrack to a novel essentially about disaffection, free will, love, and loneliness. Along the way, alternative worlds, cats, and cult religion ensnare the characters, forcing them to reappraise themselves and the world around them.

One departure from the familiar comes with the choice of a female protagonist. We meet Aomame as she sits in the back of a taxi that is stuck in stationary traffic on the Tokyo expressway. She is on her way to an important engagement that she cannot miss. So when her driver tells her of a hidden emergency staircase that she can use to get back to the city below, she grabs the opportunity with both hands. But beware, the driver warns, “things might look different to you down there.” They certainly do. Aomame finds herself in a subtly different world to the 1984 Tokyo she left behind. She names it 1Q84, the Q being a big question mark over what is going on, and continues on to her appointment.

Meanwhile, Tengo is an aspiring writer who agrees to rework a remarkable though poorly written novel to help it scoop a literary prize. The book, Air Chrysalis, is the work of a seventeen-year-old girl named Eriko Fukada, and seems to be based on her own experiences. With Tengo’s help it not only takes the prize but rapidly becomes a bestseller. But as the publishers work to prevent the truth about who wrote Air Chrysalis from getting out, Tengo finds Eriko’s world permeating every part of him and is drawn into the dangerous reality of Air Chrysalis, where two moons hang next to each other in the night sky, and the Little People emerge from the carcass of dead goat.

And amidst all that Aoomame and Tengo begin to realise how much they mean to each other, even though their last contact was a brief clutch of hands between two lonely outcasts in a school classroom when they were ten-years-old. Yet as each of their stories influence the other it comes to feel as though they are matryoshka dolls stacked inside each other. What is real? What is story? Chekhov’s gun hangs on the wall, but whether it is used or not depends, ultimately, on whether this is a story or real life.

Like most of Murakami’s novels, 1Q84 is, at its heart, a love story. Only a love story in which other things keep getting in the way.  “It’s like the Tibetan Wheel of Passions. As the wheel turns, the values and feelings on the outer rim rise and fall, shining or sinking into darkness. But true love stays fastened to the axle and doesn’t move.”

Nearly everything that I love about Murakami is present here. The plot carried me along. At times it was almost un-put-downable. The smoky urban landscape simmers along with an after-hours feel. However, the biggest problem comes in the way in which it is narrated. In 1Q84, Murakami has switched for the first time from his reliable first person style to a moving third person viewpoint. It turns out that his familiar conversational style does not translate will to this new voice. Where in the first person he successfully elucidates the quirky lives of his various protagonists, drawing the reader into their small everyday lives, in the third person his prose becomes inelegant and cliché ridden.

The result is a stylistically ugly experience that prevents the reader ever fully engaging with the characters. Through them, Murakami presents thoughtful insights, not least the subjugation of women in Japanese society, but because neither Tengo nor Aomame really work as characters in their own right, they feel like merely vehicles for the plot to move around, and through which to explore these issues, rather than people to engage with. For an author whose reputation has been built on character driven works, this is a major disappointment. For me, 1Q84 cannot recover from this narrative weakness. It seeps into everything. There are long flabby passages of italicised first person rumination that only make everything worse, and in the end, quite honestly I was glad to finish it.

And yet.

There is one area in which 1Q84 succeeds. Critics have so far been rather scathing of the Orwellian metaphor that the title conjures, but to me it works spectacularly well. Although the dialogue around Nineteen Eighty-Four is somewhat dull, the metaphor Murakami creates serves as a comment not only on his entire body of work, but half a century of social change as well. Where Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book about the dreaded future as the 1940s feared it, with homogenising political forces using ideology to cement their power, 1Q84 is that same time period as it would be written now. Politics is almost entirely absent from the lives of the characters. Even a formerly ideologically driven commune has morphed into a pseudo religious cult, and citizens couldn’t care less whether Big Brother – in the form of the State, or God, or a mysterious group known only as the Little People – is watching them. Like Winston Smith, Aomame and Tengo are drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with forces more powerful than they, but unlike Winston, they care only about emerging unscathed, and finding each other while the rest of the world gets on with life as it chooses.

By placing these two competing visions of 1984 alongside each other, Murakami demonstrates the changing social and political climates of the past fifty years effectively. He has spent his career writing about urban alienation and the world as it has become. His entire opus has been a statement about the importance of the micro over the macro. The importance of love, and music, and literature, and food, and all those sort of things, over and above politics. His work captures the spirit of the age, the sense that politics has failed, but nothing other than empty technology has stepped into replace it. In this globalised world, Murakami speaks to an audience about loneliness, boredom and powerlessness just as effectively as Orwell spoke about the tendencies of communism and fascism. And like Orwell did more than sixty years ago, it perhaps says more about the world we live in that we really want to accept.

For all the narrative doesn’t work, this makes 1Q84 a thought-provoking read. There are successful, even fascinating aspects, but the overall reading experience is a convoluted one. By the end I was exhausted.

But beware, with Book Three still to come, it is unclear how things may evolve. There are questions that remain unanswered: a crow keeps appearing, just what happened to the NKH subscription collector who stabbed a client, and will Aomame and Tengo ever manage to find each other. In typical Murakami fashion, he places a warning about judging the book before the end on the very first page where Aomame ruminates on Janicek’s Sinfonietta, considers its relationship to the following years in Czech history, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that the most important proposition that history teaches us is this: “At the time, no one knew what was coming.”

1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) was first published in the UK by Harvill Secker on 18th October 2011. 624pp, ISBN: 9781846554070.
1Q84 (Book Three)
is published by Harvill Secker on 25th October 2011. 368pp, ISBN: 9781846554056

11 comments on “1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) by Haruki Murakami

  1. John
    October 18, 2011

    What a fascinating review! Murakami is an addictive and thought-provoking writer and I was looking out for reviews of this book. It is the case that both Murukami and Oe are sometimes influenced by English writers (in Oe’s case it seems to have been Blake) which must contribute to their non-Japanese appeal. I am not sure whether I am up for a three volume marathon of Murakami (regardless of what may be the serious issues you have helpfully flagged up) , although I will always have a deep affection for ‘Norwegian Wood’ ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ etc. many thanks, John.

  2. annebrooke
    October 18, 2011

    Great review, Sam – as a Murakami fan, I’m going to have to read it, but I shall be prepared!


  3. Lib
    October 18, 2011

    I don’t want to read this review until I’ve read the books – I bought them, I have to finish Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall before I start them. I usually love Murakami’s books, so I’m quite looking forward to it… and I’ll come back to this review once I’ve read it 😉

  4. Shelley
    October 18, 2011

    How could I never have known about the Tibetan Wheel of Passions?

  5. Jackie
    October 18, 2011

    Very clear review of what is obviously a complex book. It’s unfortunate that some aspects are disappointing, especially since it was long awaited. The premise & so many ingredients are intriguing. I really hope that Aomame & Tengo hook up at the end of the trilogy. You are going to review the third book for VL, aren’t you?

  6. SamRuddock
    October 19, 2011

    @John If you like Wind-Up Bird then I think you should give it a go. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of that either. I prefer his shorter fiction and short stories, but you seem to like the longer works so I’d very much advise giving it a go.

    @annebrooke – Don’t be! Go in with eyes wide open and enjoy it. I’d love to hear your thoughts when you emerge on the other side,

    @Lib – Wow, you have LOTS of reading to be getting on with! Conversely, I think Wolf Hall may be next on my reading list!

    @Shelley – You made me laugh. A lot.

    @Jackie – I’ll let you know whether they do next week. But I’m sure they will. Murakami isn’t one for withholding the cathartic ending. Though whether that will be in a straight forward getting together sense or not, we’ll have to wait and see (not that I’ll reveal a plot twist like that in a review, anyway!)

  7. annebrooke
    October 19, 2011

    Thanks, Sam – will do!

    Have to say The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my joint first Best Book of All Time (alongside Middlemarch and Girl with a Pearl Earring, bizarrely). It’s like heaven to me! 🙂


  8. Pingback: 1Q84 (Book Three) by Haruki Murakami « Vulpes Libris

  9. T.Watanabe
    October 28, 2011

    I already read the book in Japanese.
    And I placed an order for the English-language edition of the book.
    It is because I would like to look at the result of translation.

  10. harvee
    November 8, 2011

    I’ve finished the book and written a review and yet, after eading several other reviews of the book, find something new that i had forgotten or not thought of. That shows how complex Murakami can be, and how tantalizing! Hope you will visit……Harvee

  11. Handmade Jewelry
    March 28, 2012

    I am a fan of Murakami and this is perhaps one of his very best novels, right there with works like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Like all those works, analyzing the novel felt like gradually sinking into a well of dreams, and being wrapped in a mood of awareness and off hand beauty/absurdity.

    So overall, if you love his novels like me, this is a must read and a good time : If you have never read him, you may want to start with something shorter like Hard Boiled Wonderland.

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