1Q84: The Weird and Fantastic World of Murakami

 About a month ago, I wrote up my midway impressions of this book, which were largely along the lines of: ‘this book is taking me over three months to get through. I’m not sure I’m liking it all too much’. I was ambivalent.

Even earlier, in July, I’d written that Murakami had ‘lost his magic’. It just felt like a whole lot of exposition and back story (which is usually never present, or at least is seamlessly done in his novels), and ice-picks, creepy girls and Little People. Not great writing, on the whole.

Besides, his characters – every single one of them without fail, were plain creepy. Tengo’s borderline obsession with the ‘nice chest’ of the seventeen year old Fuka-Eri, yeah normal enough, but Aomame’s preference for middle-aged balding types with nice head shapes? Er? And that’s just scratching the surface of the creepiness.

But my final verdict? I loved it! How did this transformation come about, and around what stage? Probably when I was a third of my way through the second book. How is a little trickier, but I think it does shed some light on Murakami’s almost universal appeal, hence his rise to the enigmatic position of cult novelist.

1. Suspense. The web that Murakami weaves is one full of intriguing questions, and to use an image drawn by Murakami himself, it’s almost as though the reader is in a pool full of question-mark floaties, and we are entranced by all the possibilities (or floaties):

So in an equation it would be something like this, in the initial stages:

Enigma > mediocre writing.

Normally, by the end of the book, you don’t get the answers you expect. Murakami leaves those mysteries unresolved. You just have to accept that there are enigmatic an unexplainable elements of the worlds he creates. This is all part of the enigma that draws readers in.

But in 1Q84, there is a double-edged satisfaction, because the ending is perfect. Therefore:

Nice, neat ending* > Enigma > mediocre writing.

* which still leaves a multitude of doors open to the reader’s imagination, plus has a tinge of enigma to it (the reversed Tiger billboard, and the previously unheard of highway laws, leading to the question – yes, we’re out of 1Q84, but is this the old world or a different one altogether?)

Of course, it’s a shame for the hundreds of disillusioned readers out there who probably never made it to the end, and are therefore wondering how Murakami could let them down like this. Here’s a bridge, get over it. He didn’t write it for your personal satisfaction, it’s still a work of literature, and therefore of art, no matter how flawed that art may be.

2. Personality. There’s the appeal of Murakami himself. Usually, readers are as drawn to a charismatic personality as much as to the work of fiction itself. Any other writer, and I wouldn’t have bothered to trudge all the way through 1Q84. But ‘because this is Murakami,’ I kept thinking, ‘he’ll redeem himself’. I do have faith in Murakami, because he’s one of the writers out there (in contemporary society, at least) who genuinely sees the novel as an artform, and weaves words (and worlds) together purely for the joy of creating – this is one of the key reasons, I believe, why he is able to leave so many questions unanswered in his novels, and yet draw readers back to him time and time again. Because it’s about the journey, and not the destination.

3. The Fantastic. Interspersed with the seemingly mundane aspects of daily life are moments of magic and utterly bizarre surrealism. Again, Murakami succeeds in poking that chink in our armour, our Achilles heel – which is love of the supernatural, and the otherwordly. How else could readers bear to read page after page about Coca Cola, and The Beatles, and jazz cafes, and downtown Shibuya/Shinjuku (though in 1Q84 it’s more Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Remembrance of Things Lost/Past – i.e. the elusive Marcel Proust), and how to prepare the perfect grilled mackarel with grated daikon radish, and miso soup with tofu and littlenecks and green onions, and cucumber slices with wakame seaweed in vinegar.

For those in the West, there is also that added fascination of the Orient, or that cultural enigma, Japan. Even though the descriptions of modern Japan will seem ordinary to his Japanese audience, or even to his Korean or Chinese or Taiwanese audience, to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, even these mundane descriptions will fascinate. Like I said, however, the real crowd-pleaser is those threads of magic interwoven into the cloth of everyday life – hence, the universal appeal.

Having said all this, I don’t think that 1Q84 is representative of Murakami’s work. It departs from anything he’s done previously. While in narrative style, it’s probably closest to his classic 1970s love story, Norwegian Wood, the depth and complexity of the plot far exceeds that straightforward storyline. Even his fictional world, 1Q84, took surrealism to a whole new level. One of Murakami’s key plot devices is, as mentioned above, that he injects elements of the surreal into an ordinary setting. Here, however, the protagonists were transported into a different dimension, which I felt was a big departure from his previous works.

My main problem was with the storytelling itself. The creepiness, I could deal with. Granted, there were plot elements that just made me step back and think, ‘oh my goodness. Don’t even go there. That is disgusting’. But it was the writing which I felt let this book down. It had a very slow start, and I think my inability to connect with it in the earlier sections was due to this poor editing. There were just chunks and chunks of plain back story and exposition, told in the most uninteresting of voices. I stand by my previous belief that 1Q84 could have at least a third of it edited out, and it would work. In fact, not only would it still work, but it would be a better piece of literature, and give less strain to the wrists when reading it lying down.

Finally, here are some interesting articles on translation, from the Chinese translators of 1Q84 (stumbled across this while I was reading the Mandarin translation of Volume 1 alongside the English version):

The “beautification” of the work in translation does not exist

by Lin Shaohua

(original article can be found here)

According to what usually happens, whenever a new book of Murakami’s is released in Japan, I would receive the text, take up my pen and begin to translate it, and when the rights have been settled over in Japan, I would basically be finished on this side. But after the storm over Running*, I didn’t want to do this anymore. I understood that I could not control some things, so slowly I’ve started to not only translate other people’s work, but I am also trying to write what would belong to myself as being limited by other people is a source of pain.

What I must “self-praise” is that my translations are, to some degree, a real expression of Murakami’s literary style, specifically there are three points:

First we need to re-realize the simplicity, rhythm and humor of the original style. As for simplicity, compared to Japanese or English, Chinese has a natural advantage, translating it into Chinese means that at least one third of the length is cut. As for the rhythm, Murakami says that he gets his rhythm from music, and especially jazz, but I don’t understand jazz, so where does the rhythm of my translations come from? Mostly it comes from the rhythm of classical Chinese. As for humor, I think that any reader will get a sense of this through reading the Chinese translation.

Secondly, I am careful in transferring the ‘heterogeneous nature’ of the original style. Haruki’s style has an American flavor, even an unique style ‘with several inventions,’ which basically means that it’s Japanese that doesn’t look like Japanese, but Japanese with overtones of English in translation. What I do is simple, since Murakami’s writing doesn’t look like traditional Japanese, then my translation shouldn’t look like literary work that has already been translated from the Japanese, and I try my best to dissipate the accent of normal Japanese translations, and take care to conserve the original text’s freshness and appealing strangeness, as well as the beauty of its heterogeneity. At the same time, though, I try as hard as I can to transform it into natural and exquisite Chinese.

Thirdly, I think that the original form also has these characteristics: meaningful, introverted and reserved, this is also something that I am careful in transferring to the translation.

As for the issue of the “beautification.” Whether domestically or internationally, criticism of clumsy translations usually centers on this, and you could say it is “target of public criticism.” I think that there are at least two issues related to this in this:

First, on the whole I don’t think there is a question of “beautification,” at least objectively speaking I don’t have this intention. Then objectively speaking, why do some readers, even academics, get that feeling? Thinking specifically, there are roughly two causes: one is related to my positioning of Murakami’s literature. I don’t think Murakami’s literature blindly relies on its colloquialisms and its readability as popular literature, but that it is graceful and serious literature with its pursuit of knowledge and its aesthetic ambition, therefore in the process of translation I am conscious that it is a classic, it is meticulous, I feel like I am on thin ice. The second is related to my personal literary talents, I don’t really need to be modest here, being involved in literary translation and literary creation means that you should have corresponding literary talents, and I liked literature as a child, I was almost entranced. Therefore, if I translated it to look more beautiful, that’s still a little literary talent which has naturally seeped out, but it isn’t caused by insisting on “beautification.”

Also, if I step back and say, even if it is “beautification,” what would be wrong with it? I don’t need to say that the most ideal is to equalize, to translate with real value. But whether in theory or in practice, a complete equal value and equal translation doesn’t exist. Translation has always been a process of limitless nearing to the original style, a slight divergence from this means that it touches on beautification or watering down, or even uglifying, this is committed by almost everything. If it’s like so, then making it better, beautifying it, is better than watering down, or the uglification of it, isn’t it?

  1. Murakami’s book about marathons and writing What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (当我谈跑步时我谈些什么) was translated by Shi Xiaowei rather than Lin Shaohua, after Nanhai publishing house (南海出版社) bought the rights.
  2. Zhong Hongjie (钟宏杰), MA Suzhen (马述贞) and Gao Xianghan (高翔翰) are all early translators of Murakami, but it’s unclear where they have gone.

5 thoughts on “1Q84: The Weird and Fantastic World of Murakami

  1. Is it safe to assume you read a hardcover? Or is this out in paperback already? But you did it again, you made me interested in a book I wasn’t interested in.

    1. I think the paperback version should be out by now, but for the firdt time ever (shock horror!) I opted for the hardback version because the paperback was just reallly ugly. And from experience, novels divided into two or three volumes hasnt gone well with me, usually because I just cant keep the momentum up once I finish the first volume!!

  2. I only managed to finish book 1, and dropped it there and then. Even book 1 I had great difficulty finishing, all the while knowing that it could start changing into something better in the middle of book 2 (as you confirmed). But, even after reading your review, I have to say I would not be intrigued to continue 1Q84. I will certainly read another of Murakami’s books: I’m sure this is the exception and not the rule

    1. I know how you feel – some books are just impossible to plod through! (Middlemarch and Great Expectations, for me). Not sure how much Murakami you’ve read, but I highly recommend Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood, which are two of my favourites :)

  3. Thanks for this review. I’ve started book 3 but i’m having a rest. I do want to finish it, but like many others, I’m wondering if the book has lost its charm… funny that I’ve replaced it with Norweigan Wood and I’m not having any problems reading that. But now I’ve seen your review, I will go back to 1Q84

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