10 April 2012

This underground reality

1Q84: Book 4 by Murakami Haruki, trans. Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2015)

Note: This review contains spoilers.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

When the three-volume 1Q84 appeared in English four years ago, the readership was sharply divided. The cryptic novel was ambitious but it was poorly executed. The didactic and repetitive tendencies tended to underwhelm an otherwise mysterious and suspenseful story. With the publication of this latest volume of the story, Murakami closed a window and opened a new one from which to view the events in the first three books. I was fortunate to acquire an "advance reader's copy" of it.

Book 4 was a prequel, and it was as self-contained as a story as can be. It found its characters right in the middle of 1Q84 world which Tengo and Aomame barely escaped from by the end of December of that "shifted" year. The present story unfolded in the first quarter of the year, literally the 1Q of '84, but it contained flashbacks prior to the "descent" into this world.

This time, there was only one character telling the story, in Murakami Haruki's intimate first person. The telling, as in the first two books, was once again split into two parallel tracks. One should probably say, split into two voices, for it was the split personality of Tamotsu Fukada who figured in this book.

Tamotsu Fukada, the father of Fuka-Eri, was alternating his story as "Tamotsu", the idealistic leader of an agricultural commune, and as "Leader", the godlike leader of the Sakigake cult. The background of Tamotsu's/Leader's story were already prefigured in the first books. Professor Ebisuno, one time best friend of Tamotsu and eventually the adopted father of Fuka-Eri, had already recounted parts of the story to Tengo, while Leader himself talked about it to Aomame before she killed him. Aomame's research into the archives of library already provided the general arc of the key incident in Book 4. Also, the novella Air Chrysalis, as read by Aomame and described throughout the first books, already gave away some of the plot elements. Hence, it would appear at first that this was another repetition of the story. Surprisingly though, there were new elements to mine in this story, and there were several inconsistencies, slight modifications, between the versions of events and reality mentioned in the first three books and the events and reality of the present book.

(Had Murakami spun a new reality of 1Q84 only to subvert it? Was this another world entire, distinct from 1984 and 1Q84? Who knows. It did appear as though the world of 1Q84 was "altered" by what happened in the first three books: the escape of Tengo and Aomame in the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway and the publication of the rewritten version of Air Chrysalis?)

Notwithstanding the seeming inconsistencies in the plot, the book was now more political and ideological in tone, in keeping with titular Orwellian allusion. Inevitably, a central love story was also narrated, between the parents of Fuka-Eri.

The first track of the story (the chapters called "Leader") was the cult leader contemplating the events right after the 1981 "Lake Motosu Incident", the violent gun battle that put the commune on the news. The lake incident was the turning point of the story, when Tamotsu was chosen and "baptized" as the Leader of Sakigake. The second track of the story, the "Tamotsu" chapters, was built on flashbacks detailing how the young Tamotsu founded and maintained an agricultural commune, including his increasing alienation from his friend, Prof. Ebisuno. This second track recounted the circumstances that led to the split of the commune into two factions and contained some heated dialogues and debates between Tamotsu and several of his colleagues who were increasingly becoming more radical in their views.

Leader's narrative was the chilling voice of religious extremism, "ambiguous" depictions of pedophilia, and cult violence, while Tamotsu's narrative was an intimate voice describing his relationship with his family and the peace he was seeking along with peaceful members of the commune. One was ideology, the other utopia. The voice of one person and one principle, really, but currently split and becoming more and more eerie as they increasingly imitated each other and finally merged into one principle and entity.

One was the appearance of the Little People, the other was an increasing failure to stop the spread of fundamentalism. The climax of the story told of the slow emergence of the otherworldly (though comical) Little People from the mouths of the dead radicals after the gunfight in Lake Motosu, and their spinning of an air chrysalis to carry the villainous leader of the radical faction. It was a quite extraordinary "retrieval" scene, though previews of it were already witnessed a few times in the previous books.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Murakami explored what happened within the Sakigake compound. In the same way that Murakami wrote "The Place That Was Promised", the second part of the nonfiction Underground, because he felt the necessity to give voices to the members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the novelist must have planned to provide a fictive parallel to the cult psychology before it branched out into the cult's terrorist act, the release of deadly sarin gas in Tokyo subway trains.

The notable things about this book were its more philosophical bent and the way the plot was quietly reined in, within a completely contained and isolated community, with minimum intervention from the outside world. The narrative therefore did not appear "all over the place" and messy and diffuse, qualities that marred the reading of the previous parts. Tengo, Aomame, and Ushikawa did not make their appearance in this book which concentrated on the radical and pacifist members of the commune.

Murakami, who must still be stinging from his not only being bypassed once again by the Nobel Prize Committee for literature, but also from seeing the prize go to one of his compatriots last October, had produced a worthy prequel to his lengthy story. This fourth book, which I am hoping against hope will be the last one for 1Q84, may partly exonerate him for his previous excesses. His constructed reality had now stopped expanding and this time contracted, tying all the loose strands and introducing open-ended shockers. The origin of the two moons was finally revealed in this book's epilogue. It was an engaging story within a story that justified the preponderance of "paper moons" reference in the early books. Who would have thought that behind the sickly green moon was a logical, though no less surreal, explanation?

Murakami courted greater risk with his presentation of the idea of a novelist as a cult figure, mainly through the disagreements between Tamotsu and the leader of the radical breakaway group. The dialectic was a bit forced though we could acknowledge Murakami's repeated attempts to avoid judging his characters, to avoid labelling their unorthodox actions and reactions as right or wrong. It was evident that Murakami had given the metaphorical role of novelists to both Leader and his nemesis, rather than to "Tamotsu". As early as Book 2 we could already glean how Leader, in his long conversation with Aomame, shared his strong ideas on the balance between good and evil.

   "In this world, there is no absolute good, no absolute evil," the man said. "Good and evil are not fixed, stable entities but are continually trading places. A good may be transformed into an evil in the next second. And vice versa. Such was the way of the world that Dostoevsky depicted in The Brothers Karamazov. The most important thing is to maintain the balance between the constantly moving good and evil. If you lean too much in either direction, it becomes difficult to maintain actual morals. Indeed, balance itself is the good. This is what I mean when I say that I must die in order to keep things in balance."

Practically, these were the same words of Murakami in his 2010 New York Times essay, "Reality A and Reality B" (trans. Jay Rubin)—an essay which would make for a good afterword to the books.

The proper goal of a story is not to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. More important is for us to determine whether, inside us, the variable elements and the traditional elements are moving forward in harmony with each other, to determine whether individual stories and the communal stories inside us are joined at the root.

In the previous books of 1Q84 the major characters could be said to function, individually, as "stand-ins" for Murakami. There were similarities in what the characters said in the book and what the novelist said in his essays and interviews. For example, the gay bodyguard Tamaru had things to say about the way novels are written now:

We're drawing close to the end of the twentieth century. Things are different from back in Chekhov's time. No more horse-drawn carriages, no more women in corsets. Somehow the world survived the Nazis, the atomic bomb, and modern music. Even the way novels are composed has changed drastically.

The evolution of the novel to conform to the reflection of reality was also what the author had in mind in a passage from his NYT essay:

The moment our minds crossed the threshold of the new century, we also crossed the threshold of reality once and for all. We had no choice but to make the crossing, finally, and, as we do so, our stories are being forced to change their structures. The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.

Among the characters in the books, it was Leader who perhaps came closest to embodying the role of the novelist as a creator of underground worlds and realities: "How could I possibly know such things? By listening closely. That is my job—to listen to voices [or the voice, as the translators would alternately render it]." The same reliance on voice/voices, as if she was taking up a dictation like an office secretary, was how Elizabeth Costello, via J. M. Coetzee, defined her role as novelist: "I am a writer, and what I write is what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible [after Czeslaw Milosz], one of many secretaries over the ages. That is my calling: dictation secretary. I merely write down the words and then test them, test their soundness, to make sure I have heard right." This voice and its transmission were also part of the receiver-perceiver pairing that ran through the books.

The most provocative element of this underground reality, however, was the dohta-maza conundrum. The self and its replicant, closely tied to the absence of a moral standard in the book. The dohta and maza remained just as troubling as they were outlined in the first three books. Murakami skirted the soundness of this formulation by making it part of the "belief system" of the cult. There was a danger of romanticizing the role of the novelist to the extent that whatever he dreamed up was to be accepted as is. Aomame herself had considered Leader's charismatic persona as "extraordinary" despite his sexual relations with pre-teenage girls.

Objectively, what this man [Leader] had been doing was perhaps an affront to humanity. But he himself was, in many senses, an extraordinary human being, and his extraordinariness, at least in part, appeared to transcend standards of good and evil. Ending his life had also been something extraordinary. It had left a strange kind of resonance in her [Aomame's] hands—an extraordinary resonance.

What was disturbing was the way Leader's sexual abuse of a young girl's dohta or female replicant—to the point of destroying her uterus—was considered merely, in Leader's words, an "outward manifestation of a concept", since she was not an "actual substance". Something must really be wrong in the 1Q84 world if there were young girls like Tsubasa who were "without substance", and their violation was but "one form of a concept". Incest, as well, was treated as a part of this concept. The concept, at bottom, was the sexual turpitude of Leader "possessed" by the power of the Little People. The Little People who were products of dark forces dwelling in the underground of the mind, from which the strands of chrysalis were to take shape and give birth into new "concepts". The dark forces dwelt like parasites in the minds of Leader and the radical members of Sakigake. Murakami was here treading dangerous grounds of his conceived reality, the underground reality in which women are treated as objects, in which morality was an unstable formless substance.

It didn't help, again, that this elaborate reality was couched in Murakami's serviceable prose. His writing smacked of self-validation and a nagging appeal to belief. Perhaps this latest installment could only be appreciated for its conception of an alternate underground reality whose plausibility could be accepted only in so far as this reality mimicked the main features of this reality: chaos, ambivalence, moral ambiguity. Perhaps we are living in it, always had been, in this "always only one reality" that Aomame was twice warned about. At least in Book 4, Murakami finally realized the novelistic vision he sketched in a 2001 NYT interview.

''What I write are stories in which the hero is looking for the right way in this world of chaos,'' he said. ''That is my theme. At the same time I think there is another world that is underground. You can access this inner world in your mind. Most protagonists in my books live in both worlds -- this realistic world and the underground world.

''If you are trained you can find the passage and come and go between the two worlds. It is easy to find an entrance into this closed circuit, but it is not easy to find an exit. Many gurus offer an entry into the circuit for free. But they don't offer a way out, because they want to keep followers trapped. Those people can be soldiers when they are ordered to be....''

The translation of this volume by Philip Gabriel demonstrated a natural and idiomatic grasp of Murakami's words. It was a good thing that Murakami had this time allowed his work to be edited and tightened for coherence and unity. The possibility of a sequel should not be discounted. Murakami, the perceiver, had the luxury to listen to the voice and transmit its imagined reality to us receivers. It was not hard to lose oneself in this underground reality. What was hard was to snap out of it.


  1. Wow, that is certainly a book worth waiting for ;) I like the idea of a prequel - in fact, you make it sound too good to be just a joke...

    And who is the 2014 Nobel Prize going to? Oe? Or Banana Yoshimoto? ;)

  2. The book covered April to Dec., so Murakami must be reserving the first 3 months for something. Besides, if it's another year, he may have to retitle the book!

    Ōe already won, and I can't confirm if it's Yoshimoto. I can tell you though that it's a female. :)

  3. Doh ;) Of course Oe has already won (I was just trying to think of famous Japanese writers who hadn't topped themselves yet...). Maybe Ogawa instead then ;)

  4. Ogawa. Maybe. I can't confirm at this point. ^^