Monday, December 19, 2011

A magical mystery tour

Title: 1Q84
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Price: RM91.50

As I have mentioned before, I was determined not to buy this book. First, I decided there was no way I was going to plough through a one-thousand-page tome. I am too old for that, I said. When I actually saw the book, the cheesy jacket and page design, not to mention its wrist spraining heft, it only reinforced my view. If ever there was an argument for the ebook, this is it, I told my friends.

Still, I decided to read a few pages, more to look for faults than anything else. The first paragraph got me hooked. If I was looking for bubbles coming out of throats of phoenixes, there was none. It was smooth, delicate and clean, with no aftertaste -- good translator, I said.

The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music.

After a few more paragraphs, I knew this is a book I am going to read -- no bubbles from throats of phoenixes, or dust motes in the streaming sunlight, nothing for me to toss it. I will not describe 1Q84 as unputdownable, given its weight, but it is certainly engaging. Told mainly from two points of view, Aomame and Tenko, the tale revolves around a literary fraud and two extremist religious cults. Its about the dividing line between fiction and fact, myth and reality; about loss, loneliness, passion and love, and ultimately, is a boy-meets-girl story. Have you heard it all before? Yes. Is it cliched? No.

I don’t want to give the plot away except to say that, after less than fifty pages into the book, I felt as if I had been mugged. The pace is steady, never hurried, and the characters are people one will recognise no matter where we live, despite (or perhaps, because of) the surrealism that surrounds them. The plot gets quite intense in places -- there was one point where I had to drop the book and walk away, breathless, only to return after several minutes. (But that might only be me; it has happened before; maybe I get too involved in the narrative.) And there is the music. Murakami loves music and it shows.

Some of the magic realism and fantasy elements in the story could be unsettling to some, leaving the reader to wonder if they are parables, or merely affectations of the author. Is he trying to emphasise the power of the myth, of the written word that anything once written assumes its own life and continues to live on its own, that people will believe anything, or is it a commentary on religion? The intelligent reader will have plenty to think about. Others will be rewarded with a good story.

1Q84 is not without faults. The pace of the first two books is different from the third, which is more languid, but that’s not its worst fault. Apart from the cheesy design mentioned above, the first book feels under-edited and hurried. Fortunately, Murakami is a genius and that shines through. Under lesser authors, this would have been disastrous.

Read this book. Do not be intimidated by its size.