Life might have been totally different

by Haruki Murakami

It’s my own fault. I was really excited about this book. I built it up in my head. I believed the “magnum opus” hype. I was bound to be let down.


I really like Murakami. He’s not my favourite writer but I have loved some of his books and really liked several more, so the prospect of a three-volume masterpiece by him sounded wonderful. Unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of his works so far. In fact, at times it had me angry enough to want to throw the book across the room and I nearly gave up on it multiple times. But I soldiered on because this is after all Murakami and there is an intriguing storyline that is not wrapped up until the last page. And I had to know.

So that’s it’s great strength: the story. It’s a very Murakami story, an idea that starts gradually, slowly forming, giving you room to guess what’s going on. It’s weird in a surreal sort of way but it has an internal logic that allows you to see the directions it might go in.

Because it takes most of book 1 (300+ pages) for the basic concept to become clear, I don’t want to say too much about what happens. The chapters alternate between the stories of Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is part-time teacher, part-time writer, who allows himself to be persuaded by an editor friend to rewrite someone else’s entry in a creative writing competition, a story called Air Chrysalis. The situation goes from a bit unethical to downright dangerous when it turns out that there is a lot more to Air Chrysalis than meets the eye.

Aomame is a fitness instructor and also an assassin. But not the ruthless kind who will kill anyone for the right price. She has just one client and kills one particular breed of very bad men. So what links her to Tengo? Well, that would be saying too much, but from the start it is clear that they have a lot in common. They are both about 30 years old, living in Tokyo, with no strong emotional ties to anyone. They have almost clinical attitudes to their sex lives. They are particular about cleanliness and eating well. And because they would clearly get on well, it was wonderful slowly learning about how they were linked, seeing their stories draw together. But.

For one thing, I think 1Q84 is far longer than it needs to be. Murakami has a reputation as a sparse writer but here there is lots of repetition, lots of restating facts – a lot of bulk could have been shed. After the initial teasing out of a detail or plot point it then gets overstated and too obvious. This was to the detriment of the more surreal, magical elements because it made them seem at times clumsy and over-thought.

But I also had issues with some of the major themes in the book. First up: sex. I have no problem with sex scenes, but here I frequently got the feeling that typical male fantasies were being depicted for no good reason. Aomame is straight and at one point turns down an offer of sex with a woman, yet Murakami has her linger on the memory of a teenage lesbian dalliance with a close friend more than once. For no reason that I could fathom, when she remembers two good female friends from her past she thinks about their breasts. And not in a jealous way but in a sexual way. It’s very strange.

Then there’s the parents thing. There are no good parent–child relationships in this book. Tengo is horribly self-centred in his attitude to his father. Both Tengo and Aomame chose to move out from their parents at the earliest possible opportunity, but neither describes anything particularly terrible to explain why. Aomame’s parents were religious, Tengo’s father a distant workaholic, and perhaps with some further details those would have indeed been in some way abusive situations, but for all the very many words, I was never able to see what had been so wrong with either childhood.

Which brings us to the last problem: religion. Oh my word does Murakami have an axe to grind here. I should point out that I am an atheist, I am no fan of organised religion and recognise that it has been the source of a lot of bad stuff. But it has its positive side too and in most cases is probably best described as benign. 1Q84 gives no stock to such nuances. ALL RELIGION BAD could sum its attitude up. Basically, you have a cult that somehow grew out of a non-religious hippy commune and became a child-raping place of evil. And all other religious sects, churches or organisations mentioned are spoken of as if they are just as bad. As if they all brainwash, make children miserable, expect unreasonable things of their followers. Some of the statements I read made me slam the book shut and shout out angrily. At one point there was so much of this nonsense I didn’t know how I could possibly read on, but thankfully the narrative moved past it. (Although this is also a problem because I felt it was very ambiguous whether the nasty child-rape situation had been resolved or not.)

It started well and it ended well. The anger I felt in book 2 never resurfaced, although the boredom with some of the “waiting” sections did. I kept on reading because I wanted to know more, but I could not honestly say I enjoyed the read. This was translated by Murakami regulars Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel so the style should have been familiar but it genuinely felt poorly edited in places and there were no moments when the writing stood out as beautiful or moving. Tengo and Aomame were typical Murakami characters in that they felt real but at a distance, slightly cold fish, so I could never be in their shoes truly living the story.

It saddens me that I cannot recommend this book and am even a little bit put off reading Murakami at all for a while. But I know other people have loved it so remember this is just my opinion. Others are available.

First published in Japanese in 2009 and 2010 by Shinchosa Publishing.
This translation published 2011 by Harvill Secker.

See also: discussions on Tony’s Reading List and In Spring it is the Dawn

The fun of the fair

Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter

This is one of those modern classics that keeps popping up in discussions on Radio 4, with nothing but praise directed its way, so I thought it was about time I gave it a go.

It is a beautiful, crazy book. Right from the start, Carter keeps us guessing: is anyone telling the truth? Is this the part fantasy/fairy tale that it seems to be or is it a story about some rather clever, even fantastic, people in “real” life?

The story switches between three narrators, sometimes third person, sometimes first, but always appearing to be one of their perspectives. First there’s Jack Walser, an American investigative journalist who, at the start of the novel, is in London to interview a woman who he thinks must be pulling some kind of trick on the British public. That woman is our second narrator, Sophie Fevvers, a six foot plus blonde with wings – yes, wings – who takes advantage of this strange growth by performing as a trapeze artist. She gladly tells Walser her story, or a version of it, with help from her rather less welcoming foster mother Lizzie, who seems to have tricks up her sleeve, has a way with words that belies her coarse cockney accent and is our third narrator/perspective.

Walser quickly falls for Fevvers, as she prefers to be known, to the extent that he signs himself up to join the circus that she is about to go on tour with; and so begins a cacophony of adventure and misadventure.

The story is set in 1899 so the circus is that old-fashioned kind that combined freak show, performing animals, and heavy superstition and tradition. This sometimes got hard to stomach. I have in my time campaigned for circuses to be animal-free and, frankly, this novel offers strong evidence in that campaign’s favour. However, it’s all part of the surreal menagerie that now includes Fevvers – part woman, part swan. And the chimps are completely brilliant.

Carter toys with her readers throughout, mixing reality with lore and perception so that it is never clear what the characters believe to be true and what actually is true:

“[They] did not live alone. There was a bear, a black one, not yet a year old, still almost a cub. This bear was part pet, part familiar; he was both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendental kind of meta-bear, a minor deity and also a partial ancestor because the forest-dwellers extended considerable procreational generosity towards the other species of the woods and there were bears in plenty on the male side of the tribal line.”

For all its rollicking, good humoured, wonderfully written storytelling, it did take me a while to get through this book. Mostly I think that was the language. This isn’t simple, accessible language. This is complex, crafted, allusion-heavy prose, with borrowings from the folklore and mythology of several European countries. I thought it was magnificent, but there was no rushing through it.

I also – and I hate to admit that this made a difference – took a while to warm to any of the main characters. Fevvers and Lizzie deliberately keep themselves at a distance, though they can talk for hours on end (and do so), so you’re always aware that they’re holding something back, even without the big mystery of Fevvers’ wings. And Walser starts out as a pure journalist, not letting his own character or history get anywhere near the story that he is unravelling, so it is a long time before his personality begins to show through.

In all, this is a magical, funny, adventure-filled read encompassing all sorts of colourful outsiders – prostitutes, freaks, clowns, murderers and more besides. The story travels from London to Siberia and evocatively captures each location as well as the daily lives of its huge cast of characters. Carter created something extraordinary here and I will definitely have to read more of her work.

First published 1984.
Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.