1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (2009–2010)

Where to begin? Murakami, who has won a long list of literary awards at home and internationally, is not just big in Japan; he’s the sort of writer who gets described as “among the world’s greatest living novelists” and is rumoured to have been shortlisted for a Nobel Prize in literature. His Wikipedia entry lists translations into almost 50 languages, and this book, his second most recent (the latest was published two weeks ago) sold in unprecedented numbers in Japan.

So much for the author. At over 900 pages, this book is a tour de force. A surreal story of loneliness and love, it’s captivated everyone I know who’s read it. We meet two star-crossed, would-be lovers, the force of whose relationship drags them into a parallel universe with rules subtly different than our own, with its own strange dangers and forces they are at pains to understand but which may despite it all give them a chance to reunite. The book is set in 1984, and shifts between that and the alternate universe of 1Q84 (this is a play on words: “9” and “Q” are homophones in Japanese). I almost feel like reading this book is as good as passing a weekend in a residential neighbourhood of Tokyo in 1984, so detailed are the descriptions of the place and time, although there are enough elements of fantasy to keep the reader disoriented and not entirely sure what’s happening (indeed, some of Murakami’s earlier books have been classified as genre fiction). At its base, though, this is a plot-driven adventure about two lives that seem fated both to be intertwined and to never meet, complete with high suspense, chase scenes, masked bad guys, and an ongoing meta-conversation about Chekhov’s gun. It would make an exciting movie, one I’d happily go see.

From his constant references, it’s clear that Murakami is extremely well read in the Western literary canon, and in addition to writing his own works he has published a large stack of translations from English to Japanese. It’s hard not to wonder if Murakami is such a popular author outside Japan because he has been so heavily influenced by foreign writers, to the point where his writing style in his native language is known for reading like a translation from English to Japanese (as one would expect, according to Wikipedia says this is all atypical of Japanese literature). Whatever the formula, it’s clearly working for him at home and abroad. This was a fun read, and I look forward to discovering more of his work.