That Haruki Murakami dips heavily into surrealism for his tales, is nothing new. But his latest, the much toasted 1Q84 – three volumes in all – gets even more surreal: it has a happy ending – the boy and girl walk hand-in-hand into the sunset kind! [Well, almost: just that, it’s winter and they flag a taxi at a highway in Tokyo where they exit from the other world] But you get the drift: it’s bizarre even for a Murakami.
To reach there of course you have to wade through 900-odd pages. The path is strewn with usual dose of Murakamism – lonely man who could cook delicious meals, strange but clairvoyant teenage girl, lots and lots of music and nothing less than a cat town. And then some more. A green moon that ‘hangs side by side’ of the usual yellow moon, Little People spinning chrysalis...
1Q84 is set in 1984 [9 is Q in Japanese], an obvious tribute to George Orwell’s 1984. The book is what you call a typical Murakami set to the tune of Leoš Janácek Sinfonietta. In an interview to the New York Times, Murakami has claimed that unlike Orwell he has approached ‘the year from the opposite side’. Whichever way it might be, there’s definitely the omnipotent presence of George Orwell’s 1984. For one, the evil seems to rise from a commune that believes strongly in communist ideologies. And then there are the Little People [as opposed to the Big Brother] who know everything.
Yet, for all the wispiness of his characters – he has a 10-year-old spinning ‘air chrysalis’ with Little People who come out of a dead goat’s mouth – 1Q84 is perhaps the most grounded in reality of his books. Murakami nails 1984 down for his readers by recounting history – tirelessly, he lists the big events that shook 1984, without giving into the temptation of putting his two cents worth of hindsight. We could also see the process of ‘making-a-novel-Murakami-style’. One of his lead characters, Tengo, an aspiring writer, takes us through it in almost mind numbing detail. In case you are wondering, chiselling words is a lot of hard work.
That Murakami could talk about reality even while sketching the details of the parallel world for us – down to the exact shade of the second moon – is what makes 1Q84 un-putdownable. At least, the first two books are definitely racy. They transport you into the world that Murakami seems to have created effortlessly. You flip through the pages hardly noticing that you are into Book Two.
Trouble comes knocking in Book Three. After that headlong rush, we are suddenly put on hold – Tengo and Aomame, the lead characters, in search of each other, but within walkable distance, pontificate on the mystery called life, gazing at two moons. And so we wait for things to gather momentum. By then, as is usually the case with Murakami’s tales, logic goes for a spin, leaving us precariously hanging onto the well crafted words of the author. When the end comes, we are taken in by the swiftness of it, as well as the unexpected happy end. So unlike Murakami who usually likes to leave his climax darkly dangling. But happy ending notwithstanding, not everything is tied neatly in 1Q84. There were quite a few hanging loose, enough to leave you feeling woozy as is usually wont with Murakamis.
Music and Murakami
When it comes to music, if you pay attention, you’ll discover real gems in Murakami’s novel. Oh so casually he’ll throw in a Henry Purcell pastoral, Baroque for You [Dance, Dance, Dance] at you. He will give you perfect music to cook pasta. His character in Wind-up Bird Chronicle boils ‘a potful of spaghetti’ and ‘whistles along’ with Gioachino Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie. And he [the character] swears that it has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
You get information that only a true connoisseur could provide. In 1Q84, we are told that in the Louis Armstrong song, Chantez les Bas, towards the end, ‘the trombonist, Trummy Young, gets carried away, forgets to end his solo at the agreed-upon point, and plays an extra eight bars.’
How intertwined music and his writing could be best explained by this excerpt from South of the Border, West of the Sun: ‘Johnny Hodges had this sensitive and elegant solo on it [in Duke Ellington’s Star-Crossed Lovers]. Whenever I heard that languid, beautiful melody, those days came back to me. It wasn’t what I’d characterize as a happy part of my life, living as I was, a balled-up mass of unfulfilled desires. I was much younger, much hungrier, much more alone. But I was myself, pared down to the essentials. I could feel each single note of music, each line I read, seep down deep inside me. My nerves were sharp as a blade, my eyes shining with a piercing light. And every time I heard that music, I recalled my eyes then, glaring back at me from a mirror.’
[You could access the Murakami Mix in his official web site.]
Cats and Murakami
If in Kafka on the Shore we have talking cats, in Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the hero goes in search of his girlfriend’s missing cat. In his latest book, 1Q84, he has a whole town run by them. It’s clear that Murakami’s fascination with cats run real deep. It is said that whenever a cat disappears in a Murakami story, something very strange is about to happen. And, come to think of it, the quest to find the cat always lead Murakami’s characters to life-altering and destiny changing situations.
Food and Murakami
If you want, you could really learn to cook Japanese – and an occasional Italian dish – with Murakami. If not the complicated cooking that is described in Norwegian Wood, definitely the ubiquitous Miso soup with tofu and wakame that features in almost all his books. Norwegian Wood, by the way, also shows you how to eat cucumbers. ‘I washed three cucumbers in the sink and dribbled a little soy sauce into a dish. Then wrapped a cucumber in nori, dipped it in soy sauce and gobbled it down.’
Murakami though, when he was questioned by a Time Magazine reader, is supposed to have said, ‘My favourite meal is when you have no idea what to cook and you open the refrigerator and find celery, egg, tofu and tomato. I use everything and make my own dish. That is my perfect food. No planning.’
Try telling that to his readers. Looks like they take the food seriously: there are apparently book clubs around the world that serve what is being cooked in the book that the members are reading when they meet for discussions.