Earlier this summer my husband and I decided to both read 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. He read the book in Japanese, the language of its composition, and I read it in English translation. We were interested in comparing our impressions and seeing what, if anything, we could discover about how a book reads in the original vs. translation. Though he has declined to blog his impressions of the book himself (spoiling my best laid blogging plans), I will summarize his thoughts based on our conversations.
My hubby thinks that Murakami is a terrific storyteller. He thought that one reason the story works so well is the amount of factual detail interwoven with the more fantastic parts of the story. For example, the spot on the elevated highway that Aomame climbs down was a recognizable location to my husband who knows certain areas of the city very well. He found many such details in the book. However, he is doubtful if people who don’t read or understand Japan and Japanese very well could really follow the story entirely for the same reasons. He felt that some aspects of the story that might seem like bizarre Murakami inventions are instead more cultural jokes/allusions, like the aggressiveness of the NHK man for example. Apparently, they really do shout through doors at people and the depiction of this character was very humorous to him. Most importantly, he couldn’t read this book without thinking about Aum Shinrikyo and Shoko Asahara which he felt Murakami was directly referencing throughout the novel. He wondered how much of these social and historical issues would be obvious or appear significant to readers in translation.
I love Murakami’s inventiveness. He always seems to have no-holds barred on his imagination. He has a way of seducing the reader into believing the most outlandish things are possible, such as an immaculate conception via a thunderstorm. Still, the main characters of Aomame and Tengo became increasingly unreal and more archetypal as the story progresses. From the beginning, they were exceptional individuals — both so physically fit, healthy, smart, and disciplined. By then end, they were like some sort of Adam and Eve of this new world with their immaculately conceived super child. Perhaps, this sort of Christian illusion is more what I interpret as a Western reader. Like my husband, I did think about Aum Shinrikyo intermittently as I read, but couldn’t recall many details of the organization or its history other than the gas attack on the Tokyo subway. I just noticed putting together this post that Murakami has published a nonfiction book all about the effect of the sarin gas attack on the Japanese collective consciousness (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche). Perhaps then, it is not surprising that I noted the Aum references as a mere footnote compared to the centrality of it to my husbands reading.
We both agreed that the private detective Ushikawa was one of the most interesting characters in the book. In particular, we noticed that although Ushikawa was introduced early on and his cleverness and physical repulsiveness described then, it wasn’t until the very end of the book that Murakami developed his back story. I read a lot more fiction than my husband does, but neither of us could recall a similar type of structure. The effect, however, was to make Ushikawa very human and relatable just as Aomame and Tengo were becoming more un-relatable. It seemed to us that his lonely death was the great tragedy of the story and somehow as important as Aomame and Tengo’s final reunion.
He: personal copy in a 6 volume “pocketbook” edition
He: I can’t read it!
She: Alfred A. Knopf Tanslation copyright 2011 Haruki Murakami; Translators Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel