War and Peace (Penguin Classics)

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A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

1.
When will Haruki Murakami finally get a Nobel Prize? Around this time every year, the question grumbles around Japanese literary circles. And around this time every year, the answer is the same: better luck next time. For my part, I’ve always observed this ritual with a jaundiced eye. Murakami, for all of his success and considerable stylistic accomplishments, just wasn’t Nobel-worthy (hold your flames until the end, please). His output is impressive and his fiercely devoted readership has made him one of the world’s bestselling non-English novelists. But his books, which I had once found fresh and engaging, became increasingly predictable. If he hadn’t reached the limits of his talents, then it seemed that he was at least stuck in a very deep rut.

But with 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, the bandwagon’s out of the ditch, and I am jumping on board. The book, which was a blockbuster in Japan, is Murakami’s finest work: nuanced, brilliant, gripping, philosophical but never tendentious, self-assured, cleverly post-modern yet authentic, and possessed of a haunting surrealism that by this point surely deserves its own adjective: Murakamian?

Fans will find much to love. Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display: cats, oddly-formed ears, European composers and novelists, and little people with strange powers. And yet, the book feels fresh in a way that Murakami hasn’t felt in a long time. It sees the familiar with new eyes. Reading it is like falling in love again for the very first time.

Murakami’s work has always depended on subverting its readers’ sense of the familiar. His stories mostly take place in an off-kilter version of reality that seems the stranger precisely because of its similarity to the world we know. 1Q84’s brilliance is founded on more or less the same principle. It is instantly recognizable, yet inexplicably strange. A Murakami novel as it might be written in a Murakami novel. The premise is high-concept, but somehow unpretentious: two people, a novelist Tengo and a part-time assassin/fitness instructor Aomame, find that they have been transported from the “real” world into a fictional one complete with two moons, giant, glowing chrysalises woven from thin air, and a dead goat that serves as a portal to yet another world. Basically, it’s a love story. And a very affecting one at that.

As might be expected, both the novel and the world in which it’s set, the eponymous 1Q84, are self-consciously literary creations, one written by Murakami and the other by the writer, Tengo, who finds himself trapped in his own book, a high stakes literary fraud based on the work of a mysterious teenage girl. Although there are a few heavy-handed ventures into explicit meta-fictional commentary (a gun, which in contravention of Anton Chekov’s famous maxim, never goes off), the border between fiction and reality, whether Murakami’s or Tengo’s,  is never explicitly drawn, and the whole enterprise is carried out with such zest and lightness of touch that it never occurred to me to question the concept.

The brisk pacing doesn’t hurt, either. The book is a doorstop of the order of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, but unlike those shambling monsters, it features a gripping, tightly plotted narrative that’s readable enough for the beach. Whereas Murakami’s previous books often built slowly and ended ambiguously, exploring in the meantime only the most quotidian aspects of his bizarre alternate realities, 1Q84 hits the ground running and never stops. Except for a slow jog of exposition in the middle, the book, which traces the mysteriously intertwined lives of Tengo and Aomame, keeps up its quick pace through over 900 pages, putting on an extra burst of speed as it comes tearing through the finish line. Most incredibly for a book of this length, it manages with only one exception to tie all of its plot threads into an elegant ending better suited to a thriller than the elephantine social novel it resembles. As a novelist, Murakami has proven himself to be a world class marathoner.

2.
After the English release of Murakami’s last novel, After Dark, critics, myself included, began to wonder if Murakami was capable of writing something that moved beyond the intensely personal (and by definition limited) confines of his best work and into the world at large. His most ambitious previous novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, hinted at the possibility, but never quite achieved it. Although the book expanded the physical and historical limits of Murakami’s world, it failed to push beyond the psychological boundaries of his main character, a cerebral, often anonymous cipher that was not quite Murakami himself. It seemed that Murakami–like the protagonist of the classic, almost psychedelic Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World–had become a prisoner of his own mind. And as time went by, that durance became a mini-genre of sorts: noir as therapy, detective stories where the sleuth trolls for clues in his own psyche but never solves the case. The essential mystery of these novels was how do you escape your own head? It seemed the puzzle was one that neither Murakami nor his characters were able to solve.

1Q84 seems to propose a tentative solution to this conundrum: self-awareness. For the first time, Murakami does not just write, but observes himself writing. And he has expressed this new awareness of himself as a novelist in an ingenious irony. Tengo, like Murakami has so often done, literally and unwittingly writes himself into his own novel. And, yet, Tengo is not Murakami. Nor, for that matter, are any of the other characters.

The result is that, for the first time, Murakami is, as a novelist, unmoored from himself. The disassociation allows him the freedom to explore multiple perspectives, and his successful expansion into the third person has opened up a world of themes that were unavailable to him during his long period of solitary confinement. Murakami’s liberation–the book alternates chapters between the perspectives of Tengo, Aomame, and, by its third and final section, a hideously ugly private eye named Ushikawa–leads the characters to revelations that would have been unthinkable in any of his previous works. The difference is striking, and it produces some truly sublime descriptions of the  human condition, expressed with Murakami’s wonderful simplicity and economy:
(Tengo) was already thirty, but yet to have a sense of himself as an adult. It just felt to him like he had spent thirty years in the world.
Or this passage, near the end of the book, that I never before would have imagined Murakami capable of:
One evening, as the cold wind blew and she kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness…
3.
In part, 1Q84’s achievement comes from Murakami’s decision to write about Japan. In previous novels, Murakami seemed reluctant to seriously engage with his own country, most often placing his characters in a world that combined a fantastical fourth dimension of his own private obsessions with a jazzy transnational “West,” built on Russian novels, Beatles music and blue jeans. Much like his characters, most of whom are expats in their own lives, Murakami refused to directly engage with his environment, choosing instead to hide his characters away in caves and wells and cabins in the woods, where the only society they kept was their own.

For all its fantastical elements, however, 1Q84 is very much about modern Japanese society. It grapples with the kind of front-page social issues we expect to find in Jonathan Franzen’s latest: the historical legacy of World War II, the aging of Japanese society, and, most prominently, the rise of religious cults that led to the infamous sarin-gas attack on Tokyo’s subways.

The difference is both superficial and profound. With the exception of his career-making novel Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism, Murakami has generally avoided the material signifiers of Japanese culture. His characters eat pasta and other western food. They sleep in beds, rather than on futons. They move through the kind of culture-neutral spaces, business hotels and luxury apartments, that form the archipelago of the developed world. To a certain extent, this cultural shorthand is what has made Murakami’s books so popular internationally. Appreciating them requires no understanding of Japan, only a few weeks spent in any major metropolis.

While Murakami’s other novels could have taken place anywhere, 1Q84 could only have happened in Japan. The book starts and ends in a uniquely Japanese locale, one of the elevated expressways that ribbon above Tokyo, and is peppered throughout with Japanese locations, situations, and references, both historical and otherwise, that feel nothing short of integral to the whole. Even the almost reflexive allusions to Western culture–in true Murakami fashion an obscure Czech composer and several European fashion designers are name checked in the book’s first several pages–for the first time seem to reflect something essential about Japan itself, a country that connects East and West in much the same way as the elevated expressway connects the story’s realfictional and metafictional worlds.

The result is a novel that feels more complete than any of Murakami’s previous work. Where much of his oeuvre feels somehow hollow at its core, like a literary Potemkin village, 1Q84 has real substance. It lacks the sense of rootless detachment that has characterized so many of his books, instead grounding itself and its characters in something real.

4.
A few weeks ago, in preparation for 1Q84’s release, the New Yorker published an excerpt from the novel called “Town of Cats.” In the story–one of many stories within stories that fill the book–Tengo reads a piece of short fiction, written by an obscure European author, about a man who travels by train to a town populated by giant talking cats. Fascinated by the town, he decides to spend the night, watching the cats as they go about their daily lives. By the time he’s ready to go home, it’s too late. He waits and waits, but the train never comes. After a few nights, he realizes it never will.

Tengo is fascinated by the story and reads it several times. He tells it to his dying father and his friends. Eventually, in the retelling, he realizes that he, too, lives in a town of cats, and if he’s not careful, he’ll die there. Reading 1Q84, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Murakami came to the same conclusion.

Will Murakami ever win the Nobel? A member of this year’s prize committee was quoted as saying that the prize has been too heavily weighted towards Europe in recent years. The comment has no doubt given fresh hope to grumblers across the world. Whether they will be vindicated or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is one thing that everyone should be happy about. With 1Q84, Haruki Murakami has finally left his town of cats.

Top Tens: Their Silliness, Their Allure

Longtime Millions reader Laurie sent in her reaction to all these “top ten” book lists that have been floating around in recent months, while also, of course, sharing her own:In the wake of the release of The Top Ten, [there is also a Web site] a collection of top ten books chosen by 125 British and American writers, the Washington Post is soliciting readers’ top ten picks.These exercises are fun, but I hope no one takes them seriously. The lists they receive (like mine) will lean toward American/British books, with a smattering of European titles, partly because American schools emphasize Western literature. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber should be as well known as War and Peace, but most Americans have never heard of it. Even when we have read the non-Western classics, we tend to favor the familiar — my list included The Old Man & the Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh are probably greater works.What do you want to bet, though, that like the Modern Library a few years ago, they get inundated with a lot of lists that include Battlefield Earth?!My top ten (not set in stone, except for Heart of Darkness):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark TwainThe Old Man and the Sea – Ernest HemingwayHeart of Darkness – Joseph ConradPortrait of the Artist As a Young Man – James JoyceTo Kill A Mockingbird – Harper LeeDon Quixote – CervantesThe Iliad & The Odyssey – HomerThe Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao XueqinWar & Peace – Leo TolstoyOedipus the King – SophoclesThanks Laurie!

Barracks Reading Part 1

It has, once again, been a long time since I wrote to The Millions. My hiatus this time around was due to constant travels and lack of time to read. I managed, nevertheless, to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as intended and began David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I do not dare comment on Crime and Punishment, since it is merely my introduction to Russian literature and so many people and scholars have already done a much better job than I can ever hope to do. Let it suffice that I really enjoyed every word in Crime and Punishment and look forward to continuing my Russian Lit. education through both Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, I think, will be next – and Tolstoy – I have War and Peace in mind, please tell me your suggestions – before I move onto others such as Pushkin and Chekhov – whose The Cherry Orchard and some other plays I have read. Next I picked up Infinite Jest with the naive hope that I could make serious headway into it in one month. I enjoyed the 150 pages that I managed to read in my month-long quest to devour Wallace’s little monster. It was, I have to admit, very confusing and I constantly found myself in anticipation of stories that begun and were, in the mere 150 pages I read, not continued. The reason I stopped was not because of my growing frustration with the novel – as happened to a couple of my friends – but because I reported to the army to serve my mandatory military service. Infinite Jest is not quite the light read that I could manage in the barracks after a full day of marching and obeying orders barked at me, therefore I put it on hold. Thus far I have not managed to return to it.[See Also: Max’s thoughts on Crime and Punishment]While in the army I picked up Turkey’s bestseller Su Ciglin Turkler (Those Crazy Turks) by Turgut Ozakman. Ozakman studied both national and private archives related to the Turkish Independence War for over sixty years. About fifteen years ago the premise of his book and most of his research was complete and the novel in progress was turned into a movie script for a four-part TV series. I remember watching the series at a very young age and being very impressed by it. My father had read the newly published Su Ciglin Turkler during my parents’ visit to New York in January and left the novel for me to read. I took the novel to the army, where only pre-approved books are allowed into the barracks and subversive writers are banned, and began reading it there. Ozakman’s narrative is very simple and fluent. The story sticks to historic facts to the point of making Su Ciglin Turkler more of a history book than a novel. The author avoided writing a history book by narrating the individual lives and adventures of historic characters in fiction. The combination creates a very strong storyline that reflects the historic moments in Turkey’s three year long struggle to freedom following World War I and touches a nerve in the reader by relating the greatly humane stories of unheard heroes and heroines. Su Ciglin Turkler makes its readers laugh and cry out loud at certain points, infuses a healthy dose of nationality that makes the reader long for the determination and unity exhibited in the birth of the Turkish Republic – as well as wonder why such stamina and selfless goodwill is missing from the scene today – and provides a great glimpse of the nation’s foundations. Unfortunately, as with most Turkish novels I read, with the exception of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Su Ciglin Turkler is only available in Turkish. If you know the language or the novel is ever translated, I strongly recommend it. That was my army novel, and I admit the setting proved perfect.See also: Part 2, 3

Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov

Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.

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