I brought my Amazon Kindle on my most recent backpacking trip through the Balkans. There are many reasons for traveling with a Kindle—it’s smaller, lighter, and more versatile than bringing a physical book. Essentially, you can bring every book and magazine in all of human history without adding more than a few ounces to your bag.
And yet, I didn’t read a single book on my Kindle during my trip.
If you haven’t picked up on it while reading my Nepal series yet, I’m a bit of a romantic. What can I say? I like the feel of a proper, paper book in my hands. I like to see the bookmark progressing, the creases appearing in the spine as I absorb the words written on the page.
So, despite the fact that I was traveling out of a meticulously managed carry-on, when I saw a copy of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 sitting on the shelf in the hostel in Zagreb, Croatia, I couldn’t resist. This, despite the fact that the book is 3 inches thick, over 1,300 pages long, and must weigh more than a pound.
Not the most efficient of choices.
Eight countries, two train rides, four flights, and 1,300 pages later, I’m finally done with it. This book’s seen more of the world than most people I know. The sheer fact that I didn’t abandon it at a hostel must tell you something.
Let’s back up for a minute.
Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author, famous for his surrealist novels. Over the years, he has built up quite a dedicated fanbase, both in translation and in his homeland. He was considered a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, before the Nobel committee’s surprising decision to award the prize to American songwriter Bob Dylan.
A Murakami novel is almost instantly identifiable. For better or worse, the man definitely works from an archetype. Things start off pretty normal, then slowly over the course of the novel, more and more fantastical elements are introduced as if they were totally normal. Strange concepts and characters will be introduced without ever being fully explained, and the novel will end without any firm sense of resolution or denoument.
This can be disorienting to a first-time reader of the author. By the time I picked 1Q84 off that shelf in Zagreb though, I’d already read five of Murakami’s previous books. I knew what I was getting myself into, and I didn’t go in with any high expectations of grandiose plotting and mysteries resolving themselves in a satisfactory manner.
Maybe, while riding the rails through the grimy, beat-down and all-too-real countries of former Yugoslavia, I wanted to read something of a counterpoint.
Light, jazzy, and fantastical—Murakami fit the bill to a T.
1Q84 is the story of Tengo and Aomame, two star-crossed lovers who have been tied together by one moment they shared as children. Through a series of odd coincidences and events, the two are drawn into a parallel world: the world of 1Q84. It’s just like their regular world, in their regular year of 1984, except in 1Q84, there are two moons in the sky.
This being a Murakami novel, the surrealism quickly begins to build and stack. People enter and exit the story seemingly at random, and life for the characters goes on at a relaxed pace. The novel is broken into three parts, each depicting three months of the year 1Q84.
It’s never really worth fixating on the plot in a Murakami novel—it’s the easy, breezy style of writing that makes me keep coming back to these books where nothing ever makes sense. The stories dance around ideas, concepts, and themes, but rarely will you find anything more obvious than a suggestion. This passage from 1Q84 (Page 266 in this UK paperback edition) does a great job explaining the experience of reading a Murakami novel:
“As his doubts increased, Tengo began deliberately to put some distance between himself and the world of mathematics, and instead the forest of story began to exert a stronger pull on his heart. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world. But at some point Tengo noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not so devastating a blow as returning from the world of mathematics. Why should that have been? After much deep thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within.”
So I guess the best praise I can give the book is this: it’s been gently warming my heart. Hopefully it can do the same for you.