Audiobook review – “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

I wrote last week about having finished two long books that I have been working through for a while. The first, Booker Prize-winner The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, was hard work and not a hit for me. The second I have been listening to on audio for a few weeks, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. By contrast, this complex and curious novel was one of the best things I have read in a long time. It is a huge book, three volumes totalling around a thousand pages, forty-five hours of listening time, recounting the events of a single year. Despite the huge anticipation of the novel when it was announced, it was not received with universal critical acclaim. Its initial print run, in the original Japanese, was sold out on the first day of release, largely due to advance orders, Murakami having already achieved a high literary profile by that stage. 

SPOILER ALERT!

The novel is essentially a love story, an unlikely one given the journey the two main characters have to take. The book opens with central character Aomame in a taxi on the city expressway. The traffic reaches an unexpected standstill and it appears that Aomame has some important business she is anxious to complete. She persuades the driver to let her leave the car when they reach an emergency exit, despite this being illegal. The driver advises her that there is a subway station below the expressway that she can reach via the emergency metal stairway. Aomame’s ‘business’ is murder. Her task is to kill a man who is a known philanderer and wife-beater and she poses as a hotel employee attending to the air conditioning in his room before killing him swiftly and bloodlessly with a specially crafted metal tool. The event is shocking, but Aomame has already become so likeable to us as the reader because she has so far seemed benign, polite, and charming. 

We later learn that Aomame’s actions are carried out with the assistance of an older woman we know as ‘The Dowager’, a wealthy widow who is a member of the exclusive health club where Aomame is a fitness instructor. It seems that both women have powerful reasons for dispatching of men like Aomame’s victim at the hotel and the combination of the Dowager’s money and Aomame’s skills, plus the support of the Dowager’s loyal bodyguard Tamaru, they conduct a quiet and effective campaign of retribution on violent and cruel men. 

Told in parallel with Aomame’s story is that of Tengo, a maths teacher at a cram school and aspiring writer. He is asked by his friend Komatsu, an editor at a publishing house, to rewrite a novella ‘Air Chrysalis’ by a young female writer, Fuka-Eri. Komatsu feels it has great potential and wishes to enter it for a prestigious debut writer’s prize, but feels it needs work. He arranges for Tengo to meet with the young woman and to rewrite the story at rapid pace. This will obviously be a clandestine exercise as it would be a scandal if it got out. The book does win the prize and is also a great commercial success, but it is then that all the problems start. 

Tengo deepens his relationship with Fuka-Eri and learns of her troubled background, the fact that she was brought up in a commune run by a secretive religious cult called Sakigake, and that after a violent and deadly confrontation with police, Fuka-Eri managed to escape and landed at the doorstep of a Professor Ebisuno, former friend and colleague of her father, and he took her in and became her guardian. She later confides to Tengo that she escaped under the instruction of ‘the little people’, who happen to be the subject of ‘Air Chrysalis’. Tengo finds himself increasingly drawn into the young woman’s strange world and a series of consequential events. 

Meanwhile, in Aomame’s world, strange things are also happening. She has begun to observe that there are two moons in the sky which it seems only she can see; the usual silver one, and a smaller green one. She concludes that she is living in some sort of parallel world, which she names 1Q84, to distinguish it from the actual year 1984. The Dowager runs a hostel for abused women in the grounds of her estate, and after taking in a young girl, rendered mute by the sexual abuse she has experienced, she asks Aomame to carry out one last killing – that of the leader of Sakigake, who she says is responsible for the violence that the young girl has experienced. It will be a very risky, dangerous and complicated task that may not be successful and could lead to Aomame’s death, because Leader is so well-protected. Believing she has nothing to lose, Aomame accepts the challenge.

Aomame’s and Tengo’s stories are told in parallel, yet the links between the strange events in their lives soon become clear. We also learn that Aomame and Tengo knew each other as children. She came from a family of devout Witnesses, setting her apart from the other children at school, and from which she would later escape, while he was the only child of a widowed and distant father who forced him to go to work with him at the weekends, collecting television license fees.The two lonely outsiders formed a bond as 10 year olds, but lost touch. Neither has forgotten the special kindness the other showed them however. 

The plot thickens, events become increasingly unpredictable and dangerous and Tengo and Aomame’s lives are drawing ever closer. Right to the end, I found myself unable to predict how it was going to turn out. I gasped more than once at an unexpected twist. Though the book is long, it draws you into its world skilfully and imperceptibly. Some critics disliked the book and found the writing clunky and cliched. I disagree completely. I found the simplicity and spareness of the language remarkably engaging and powerful. I loved the way the author got into the heads of the characters and into the minutiae of their lives that made you feel you were observing this year in their lives almost in real time. As I said at the beginning, it is essentially a love story, in my opinion. It is a brilliant homage to Orwell’s 1984, focusing not on controlling governments but on the sinister power of cults. I am having great fun thinking about the parallels between the two stories! I also love the questions it leaves unanswered, such as what really happened to Tengo’s ‘older girlfriend’ and what about the little people and Mr Ushikawa? 

Completing this book has truly felt like a milestone in my reading life. I have not come across anything quite like it before and I recommend it highly. It is well worth the investment of time. 

Booker Book Review #6 – “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka

This week I have at last come to the end of two reading marathons, one has been spectacular, the other has been a slog. Almost two months after the winner of the Booker Prize was announced, I have at last finished the sixth book from the shortlist, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, the book which in fact won. I started this book on 26th September, but found it very difficult to get into, so I switched to one or two others. It was the only book I did not manage to complete in time for the announcement of the winner. I have to say that I am somewhat surprised that it won. But then that is not unusual for the Booker, or any literary prize for that matter. Reading pleasure is such a subjective thing that I am sure there are very few works that are unanimously loved. There are also books that you just ‘know’ are good, but which are not that enjoyable to read. For me, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida perhaps falls into that category. I can appreciate the achievement, but it just wasn’t for me.

The book is set in Sri Lanka (the author’s homeland) at the time of the brutal civil war in that country, which started in 1983 and last more than 25 years. I am ashamed to admit that I knew very little about this piece of history. Some of the information had a familiarity; I was aware for example of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, though I had no idea that the regime was so brutal or repressive. Sri Lanka has also been in the news recently after the terrible economic situation there led to nationwide street protests and the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Clearly, it is a country where corrupt members of the ruling classes (many of whom have been related to one another) have at various times pocketed the nation’s wealth for their own enrichment and to the detriment of the wider population. 

Seven Moons has been described by the author as a ghost story and in addition to the history lesson and the expose of the corruption, repression and factionalism which characterised the authorities at that time, it is said to weave in myth and folklore surrounding death and the afterlife in Sri Lanka. It reminded me very much of a previous Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which won in 2017. It concerns that period of transition where the spirit is in a kind of limbo between life and death. 

Maali Almeida is the central character and the book opens with him having just died and in the process of entering the afterlife. The ‘seven moons’ relates to the period of time he has left to tie up unfinished business from his life. Maali was a photojournalist and in the course of his work he gathered together photographic evidence of some of the crimes of military leaders against the rebels and against other journalists reporting on the civil war. As such, the book becomes a bit of a murder-mystery as the nature of Maali’s ‘evidence’ becomes clear. Some people had a powerful interest in the material never seeing the light of day. Maali knew this of course and concealed what he had in an elaborate trail involving playing cards and his two best friends: Jaki, with whom he slightly masqueraded as a couple, and DD, the son of a government minister who was his lover. Homosexuality was not accepted in the culture at that time, hence the concealment, but Maali had many lovers and rebelled against the prevailing homophobia and this is another complication which made him a target. 

There is a wide cast of characters in the book (not dissimilar to Lincoln in the Bardo actually), and many of the more colourful or fantastical ones exist in the spirit world. There is a real contrast between the passages which take place in the earthly world and those in the heavenly realm where Maali is floating, plotting, and whispering instructions in the ears of those he has left behind. I found some of these characters difficult to keep track of and those at the centre (Maali, Jaki, DD) I just found hard to warm to.

The novel is quite fast-paced with some strong action sequences, but for me the flitting between the earthly and heavenly realms was just too bitty. I found it hard to keep a grip on what was going on. That can be true of a lot of books that I have loved, but I’m afraid this one just did not sustain my interest. Had I not been the sort of person who has to finish a book I have started (I can count on one hand the number of books I have abandoned) I would probably have given up on this after the first or second moon.

Moons feature heavily in the other marathon book I have just finished – 1Q84. This was quite a different undertaking and my feelings about it could not be more different. I’ll save my review of that for next week!

So, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, well it won the Booker, but…I’m struggling to recommend it, sadly, unless you are a student of Sri Lankan recent history.

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