So here it is. The long-awaited translation/s of the latest magnum opus by Haruki Murakami. Books 1 & 2 translated by long-time translator Jay Rubin, with Book 3 to follow soonish, translated by Philip Gabriel. And what is it about, if we can ask such a question of a book/s that stretches to almost 1,000 pages? At its heart is a story much like Norwegian Wood, the story of how ‘two people’s hearts – a boy’s and a girl’s – could be connected’ in a ‘frantic, labyrinth-like world’. But, of course, there is much more to it than this.
We have two characters, a young woman called Aomame and a young man called Tengo. We meet Aomame as she travels by taxi to an important job. Snarled up in a traffic jam she takes her cabby’s advice and exits the highway down a secret ladder – a ladder that takes her into an alternate 1984 that she labels IQ84:
‘Like it or not I’m here now in the year IQ84. The 1984 I knew no longer exists. It’s IQ84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.’
Tengo is a teacher in a cram school, teaching maths by day and writing fiction by night. Aomame works as a fitness instructor with a nice sideline in being a hitwoman, disposing of people with a handy spike she keeps in her purse. Both Tengo and Aomame harbour a crush of sorts for each other, having had a moment in a classroom together many years previously, despite the fact they (a) haven’t seen each other for years and (b) have no idea where the other is and are not particularly disposed to looking. Slowly but surely, however, they are brought into each other’s orbit.
Aomame’s hits are arranged by a character known as the Dowager, an elderly lady with vast banks of money at her disposal who also runs a hostel for battered wives (the hits largely focusing on men who deserve a bit of rough justice). A man known as the Leader, the head of an obscure and secretive religion, comes to their attention for allegedly abusing small children. Aomame and the Dowager come to feel that the Leader has to die, but some things are easier said than done. Meanwhile, Tengo is asked to ghostwrite a novella by a young girl, a novel featuring strange Little People, bizarre constructs drawn from threads in the air, known as air chrysalises, and odd symbiotic replica people known as Dotas.
More often than not, if you read a book that you would label as strange or quirky, the novels are written as if the author is aware of just how strange and quirky they are. There is a self-consciousness, perhaps, or an over-reliance on experimental forms. One of the strangest things about reading Murakami is just how straight he plays everything. As the book progresses, and things get progressively weirder, each of his characters do their best to adapt to the world in they find themselves. A reviewer within the novel describing Air Chrysalis, the book that Tengo ghostwrites, says:
‘”As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks.”
The pool of question marks is one you will become familiar with if you dive into IQ84.
While parts of the book feel somewhat over-written (or perhaps that should be over-translated), eg:
‘an ominous sandstorm was developing somewhere on the plain of his emotions’
‘things were already moving forward, like the great karmic wheel of Indian mythology that kills every living thing in its path.’
IQ84 is, for the most part, a hugely entertaining read, provided you are willing to suspend disbelief and not get too caught up looking for explanations. Reading Murakami demands a level of acceptance that some may not be willing to accept. There are both elements of characterisation (who Tengo is, who his parents are) and parts of the plot (Tengo’s relationship with a married woman, the murder of a policewoman that Aomame becomes involved with) that remain unresolved throughout, but as Tengo’s father tells him from his deathbed:
“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.”
Any Cop?: Provided you can enjoy the ride, IQ84 is quite a ride.