Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The forest of story

How do you say "1Q84"? Do you pronounce all the elements separately — one-Q-eight-four? Or eighty-four? For months I've been wrongly referring to it at IQ-84 (because IQ trips so naturally). Maybe Q-teen eighty-four? (My daughter has taken to reading the cover by column — Japanese style! — as eighteeen Q-ty-four.)

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 as 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.

The older he became, the more Tengo was drawn to this kind of narrative suggestion. Mathematics was a great joy for him even now, as an adult. When he was teaching students at the cram school, the same joy he had felt as a child wold come welling up naturally. To share the joy of that conceptual freedom with someone was a wonderful thing. But Tengo was not longer able to lose himself so unreservedly in a world of numerical expression. For he knew that no amount of searching in that world would give him the solution he was really looking for.

— from 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami.

To the end of book one, the worlds in 1Q84 do not appear to be all that different from our own (except for the two moons, but maybe that's not another world after all, maybe that's the book the girl wrote, or the one Tengo is still writing). Certainly there's no hint of a totalitarian state as is suggested by referencing Orwell's 1984. The affinity with 1984 comes in the treatment of memory, and its power to rewrite history.

"Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us — is rewritten — we lose the ability to sustain our true selves."

The characters of 1Q84 are beginning to accept that their realities are "an endless battle of contrasting memories."

This novel did not grab me from the start as some other Murakami books have, but still it exerts some magical pull. It moves swiftly, almost without you realizing it, and before long is deeply engrossing. All the Murakami I've read has been dream-like, disorienting, provocative. 1Q84 is no exception, but I find it also touches on some much more serious subject matter: violence against women, but also the morality of vigilante justice (more than one scene put me in mind of Natsuo Kirino's Out).

Having finished book one, I am very grateful at this point that the whole of the story has been published in a single volume. It's not a mindfuck the way The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is, but it definitely comes across as better controlled and more mature than some other Murakami novels I've read. And I want to know more about Chekhov and the Gilyak.
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