“The whole of 1Q84 is closer to comedy than to tragedy, but it is a deeply obsessive book…”

An Introduction

cover 1Q84

So…it’s on to the “big” one – 1Q84. I don’t want to give away a lot about the book in the introduction, so just a few brief introductory pieces:

First, from Jay Rubin:

“The controversy surrounding Murakami’s decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize and the spectacle of his delivering a daring critique of the Israeli government on Israeli soil reawakened interest in the novelist beyond the bounds of his usual readership to a degree not seen since the fervor surrounding Norwegian Wood. This, combined with the Shinchosha publisher’s decision to keep details about Murakami’s first long novel in seven years strictly under wraps (partly in response to criticisms that it had revealed all too much about Kafka on the Shore before it reached the bookstores), served to ramp up the level of expectation for the oddly – but intriguingly – titles 1Q84 before its first two volumes were released on 30 May 2009. Pre-publication sales were explosive, prompting Shinchosha to increase its first print run from 380,000 to 480,000, and readers who finally got their hands on the book were so eager to learn the fate of the heroine, left tantalizingly vague at the end of Book Two, that lines formed for midnight sales when Book Three was finally released on 16 April 2010. By the end of April 2012, Shinchosha had printed well over a million sets of the three-volume novel in hardcover (3,865,000 volumes total) and had already printed 800,000 copies of the first paperback volume (the first half of Book One) as the more affordable edition began to appear. The New Yorker printed an excerpt of the English translation, ‘Town of Cats,’ in its 5 September 2011 issue, but readers had to wait until 25 October for Knopf to bring out all three books at once (Harvill Secker released Books One and Two of the UK editions a week earlier; Book Three on 25 October), and midnight sales and giddy celebrations were not uncommon in this case either.

There cannot have been many novels as widely read as the English translation of 1Q84 with so much uncertainty regarding the pronunciation of its title. Some people, misreading the 1, call it IQ84 (pronounced ‘Eye-Q-eighty-four’), as though it were about a protagonist such as Forrest Gump with a low intelligence quotient. Investors might think it means ‘first quarter of 1984.’ Others, having learned of the book’s references to Orwell, and possibly aware of the identical pronunciation of the Japanese number 9 and the English letter Q, pronounce it ‘One-Q-Eighty-Four’ or “Nineteen Eighty-Four’ just like Orwell’s book. I have even heard ‘Q-Teen-Eighty-Four.’

The author himself, however, supplied a Romanized gloss for the Japanese title, ‘ichi-kew-hachi-yon’ (one-Q-eight-four), which is both reminiscent of Orwell and determinedly different. [Confession time: I’d been pronouncing it ‘One-Q-Eighty-Four.’] The Japanese reader instantly gets the meaning of ‘9’ from the ‘Q’ but is more intrigued than enlightened by it because there is no indication that this is a reference to a year on the calendar. The Japanese title of Orwell’s book is pronounced: ‘Sen-kyu-hyaku-hachi-ju-yo-nen,’ which is the standard way to write the year 1984, meaning exactly that: ‘The year one-thousand-nine-hundred-eighty-four.’ Murakami’s title does not include the suffix for ‘year’ (-nen), leaving the Japanese reader to question what relationship there could be between this odd group of four characters and the year 1984. As an English title, then, encountered before the reader has had a chance to read the novel, 1Q84 should be somewhat puzzling, as the original ‘ichi-kew-hachi-yon’ is, and out to be pronounced, ‘One-Q-Eight-Four’

True, without access to the Q/9 pun, the reader in English will be slightly more puzzled than the Japanese reader, but that lasts only a little more than a hundred pages. At that point, the female protagonist, Aomame, convinces herself that she is no longer living in the normal world of 1984, that the world around her has changed or is on some kind of track parallel to 1984, and that she needs a name to distinguish this new mode of existence: ‘1Q84 – that’s what I’ll call this new world,’ Aomame decided…Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question…Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists.’ From this point on in the Japanese text, Murakami consistently adds the –nen suffix to his intriguing four-character title, writing it ‘1Q84-nen,’ for which the Japanese pronunciation would most likely be ‘ichi-kew-hachi-yo-nen.’ Once this context of discussing year names is established, the pronunciation in English ‘One-Q-Eighty-Four’ is all but inescapable. Many readers are likely to pronounce the title this way, though, strictly as a title, ‘One-Q-Eight-Four’ is marginally more correct.

The unavailability of the Q/9 pun to readers in English raises the question of how best to translate the title. The ‘Q is for ‘question mark’ might have been brought out by using an actual question mark: 1?84, but that would have made the title even more unpronounceable, and it might have incorrectly suggested that the author was hinting at other centuries (1884, 1784, etc.) Finally the look of ‘1Q84’ with the capital Q boldly plunked among the numerals, is at least as important as the sound and is certainly more important than the Q/9 pun itself, which does not have a deep meaning. The pun simply makes Aomame’s choice of the letter Q seem less arbitrary in Japanese than it does in English, but in a book with a million arbitrary-seeming decisions and story twists, Aomame’s Q does not stand out.

Clearly, what Murakami was aiming for in his title was that it should be enigmatic, that it should be visually striking, and that it should have an Orwellian echo.. Although the title evokes Orwell’s 1984, and both books begin on a chilly day in early April 1984, the novel 1Q84 cannot be called an homage to or a variation or commentary on Orwell. As a critique of the Soviet Union and totalitarianism in general, 1984 imagines one possible future. 1Q84 instead ‘looks back and imagines the past as it might have been,’ says Murakami, who points out that he is interested in examining the mentality of the era he lived through from a different perspective…”

And a bit from Matthew Carl Strecher’s The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami:

“…1Q84 is a relatively simple narrative, particularly when compared to Kafka on the Shore. Its plot is relatively explicit, though like most Murakami works, it contains certain puzzles that remain unsolved to the end (the ‘Little People,’ to name one), intentionally left for readers to decipher on their own. 1Q84 also contains a quasi-sacred subnarrative, which will be explored…that deals with mythological aspects of the ‘other world,’ so here will confine ourselves to the metaphysical qualities of this novel as a prelude to that discussion…”

“…1Q84 is centered on the gradual convergence of its two lead characters, Tengo and Aomame. The work’s title is derived from the name Aomame assigns to the ‘other world,’ the Q standing for ‘question mark.’ However, use of the expression ‘other world’ in this particular world is somewhat unsatisfying; in fact, it is more like a time slip or, as the Leader describes it to Aomame…like a train switching tracks. ‘This is not a parallel world…Here the problem is one of time…the point where the track switched, and the world became 1Q84.’ It would be most accurate, then, to envision ‘1Q84’ as a side step for time, not unlike opening one new circuit while closing off another. Murakami himself may have been concerned that his readers would misunderstand this point, for more than one character remarks that there can only be one reality at any given time.

Structurally, too, the world of 1Q84 represents a significant departure in how Murakami handles the idea of other worlds. Aside from certain bizarre details – the existence of the Little People, a second moon hanging in the sky, police who carry automatic weapons rather than revolvers – this new dimension is virtually indistinguishable from the old, and while Aomame unmistakably enters ‘1Q84’ in the characteristic way, that is, via an escape ladder form an elevated highway, even she does not initially notice anything different. The eerie, gloomy, atmosphere that normally marks the metaphysical realm is nowhere to be found.”

And finally, as Charles Baxter wrote in his review in The New York Review of Books:

“The whole of 1Q84 is closer to comedy than to tragedy, but it is a deeply obsessive book, and one of its obsessions is Macbeth and the problem of undoings. After saying that Banquo is dead and cannot come out of his grave, Lady Macbeth in Act Five observes that “what’s done cannot be undone.” Then she leaves the stage for the last time. What the two major characters in 1Q84 desire above all else is to undo Wonderland and to get out of it and back to each other, but “gears that have turned forward never turn back,” a phrase that is repeated with variations three times in the novel, as if the problem of a snowball narrative had to do with how to melt the snowball and escape the glittering and thrilling world that Unrealism has created. 1Q84 seems to be about the undoing of a curse, so that the characters who believe that “the original world no longer exists” can somehow get back to that original world they no longer believe in. In a somewhat startling form of humanism and faith, Tengo and Aomame come to believe that what has been done can be undone.

That they do so by means of loyalty, prayers, and love is the most touching element of this book, and for some readers it will be the most questionable. Aomame, the novel’s assassin, repeats to herself a prayer that Murakami quotes several times. This prayer is the novel’s purest article of faith:

‘O Lord in Heaven, may Thy name be praised in utmost purity for ever and ever, and may Thy kingdom come to us. Please forgive our many sins, and bestow Thy blessings upon our humble pathways. Amen.’

I finished 1Q84 feeling that its spiritual project was heroic and beautiful, that its central conflict involved a pitched battle between realism and unrealism (while being scrupulously fair to both sides), and that, in our own somewhat unreal times, younger readers, unlike me, would have no trouble at all believing in the existence of Little People and replicants. What they may have trouble with is the novel’s absolute faith in the transformative power of love.”

Let’s have fun with this one. And please…share with the group your comments and questions!

My next post: Tuesday, September 9.
Our reading: 1Q84, Chapters 1-10


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s