Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Haruki Murakami's 1Q84: Chekhov with cats?

When blogger Tim Lepczyk read The New Yorker's excerpt from Haruki Murakami's high-profile new novel 1Q84, he was disappointed, not to say cynical, about the plot: 'There's a man. The man's alone. He's disconnected, either from society, himself, or both.  A woman is mixed up in the man's life and she's probably left him. There are cats. Sometimes, just one cat, other times, there are many cats. The man does not have to answer to the demands of a job or other people. If he does, then the story takes place while he has time to escape. Now, which story or novel am I talking about?' Even Murakami's fans will have to nod in chagrin after reading that. 1Q84 renews most of Murakami's tried and trusted preoccupations, and on first reading I too was disappointed (The Millions persuasively disagrees with me here). Murakami's narrative is gripping, but glib; and his characters seem as familiar as last Halloween's sock puppets. And why three volumes, and two translators? I wasn't distracted by any major stylistic shift when I finished the first two volumes (translated by Jay Rubin) and switched to Philip Gabriel's version of the third and final volume. Perhaps Gabriel's text read a little more smoothly than Rubin's, but the former raised my spikes by making characters utter 'I have to get ahold of...' when they needed something. I'm not sufficiently fluent in American to be able to judge whether people prefer this form to the European 'I've got to get'; nor is my Japanese functional enough to check whether Gabriel was deliberately matching an equally grating phrase.

Young Murakami with cat
Clearly, however, Murakami exploited the sheer page heft of 1Q84 to let his love of Russian literature, particularly of Chekhov, out of the closet. In Volume One, the hero, Tengo, reads a sixteen-year-old girl to sleep with a passage from Chekhov's Sakhalin Island. Murakami persuaded his editors to admit a solid chunk of Brian Reeve's translation (Oneworld Classics) of this remarkable work, which first appeared in Russian Thought between 1893-94. Tengo's apparently soporific passage mostly concerns a primitive Siberian tribe, the Gilyaks, remarkable for their dislike of leaving the taiga - even when they encounter a road, it fails to register on their mental topography. (Like 1Q84's dominant metaphor of the Town of Cats, the Gilyaks' permanently taiga-bound psychology reminds us of our own propensity to become trapped in tide pools of civilization, stranded on the edges of our own lives. When I implied 1Q84 was weak, I also implied a qualification: weak by Murakami's paradigm-tweaking standards.)

When Tengo visualizes the shores of Sakhalin Island, washed by the Sea of Okhotsk, he thinks, 'What Chekhov must have felt there at the end of the earth was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. To be a Russian writer at the end of the nineteenth century must have meant bearing an inescapably bitter fate. The more they tried to flee from Russia, the more deeply Russia swallowed them'. He speculates that Chekhov went to Sakhalin as 'an act of pilgrimage', intended to purge the 'literary impurites' of rancid, overstuffed St Petersburg. 'I think it was precisely for this reason that Chekhov never wrote a single literary work based on his trip to Sakhalin. It was not the kind of half-baked experience that could be easily made into material for a novel. The diseased part of the country became, so to speak, a physical part of him, which may have been the very thing he was looking for'. This is a slight exaggeration - 'The Murder' (1895) arose in part from Chekhov's Sakhalin adventure - but nonetheless, it's the kind of lyrical insight that makes me want to start re-reading the critical literature.

Chekhov with feline (?) friend
Tengo's female counterpart, Aomame, encounters Chekhov less directly; when a former criminal supplies her with a gun for self-defence, he explains his reluctance to supply arms in terms of Chekhov's famous theatrical dictum. 'According to Chekhov, once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired. [...] And Chekhov is a writer you can trust'. Ultimately, Tengo and his editor friend conclude that Chekhov short stories are 'not all that enjoyable', but characterized by 'paradoxical humour'. Meanwhile, other Russian classics flicker through the novel; an ambiguous character cites Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov to persuade Aomame that 'in this world, there is no absolute good, no absolute evil... Good and evil are not fixed, stable entities but are continually trading places'. The retired criminal interrupts a torture session to inform his victim, 'You can't really generalize about pain. Each type of pain has its own characteristics. To rephrase Tolstoy's famous line, all happiness is alike, but each pain is painful in its own way'. From Anna Karenina to waterboarding, in one fluent reformulation.

All of this Russophilism makes me wonder whether Chekhov, dipped in magic realism, has always been the primary influence on Murakami's fiction. If we return to Lepczyk's scathing mini-Murakami plot outline and remove the cats, the formula that remains is not unlike 'Ionich', 'A Nervous Breakdown', or 'The Black Monk'; or most of Chekhov, in fact. If we take a signature Chekhov story, run it through a magic realism mixer and insert cats (optionally, talking cats), we get something like 'Anna Sergeevna and Gurov-san and Anna's Balinese kitten loved each other, like very close friends, like family... And as they climbed up the emergency stairway to the flyover under the light of both moons, it seemed as if in just a little more time, a solution would be found, and then a new and beautiful life would begin; and both of them understood that there was still a long way to go before the end and that the most complicated and difficult part had yet to begin' (from Anton Pavlovich's 'The Lady with the Little Cat'). Can there be any doubt? The best Murakami is trying to be Chekhov, with added cats. Miaow.



  1. Great review, thanks. It's a Dachshund in the photo, I think.

  2. I agree - I've been trying to remember the breed of Chekhov's own pet dogs at Melikhovo (something larger than Dachshunds, I think). The creature in the photo was wrongly advertised as a cat on the original website.

  3. I think I have it somewhere - I was researching The House With the Mezzanine, the background etc. and saw it mentioned. When I get round to writing it up, I'll let you know. I was re-reading the Mezzanine and suddenly thought how wrong the traditional school interpretation of the story was, but wanted to check if there was a take similar to mine.

    Oh, and dachshunds are excellent runners, apparently!

  4. here:
    Two Dachshunds, Brom and Khina, names derived from contemporary medicines Bromine and Quinine.

  5. Thanks for this link, Alexander - such a sad story! I was just going to add that Donald Rayfield certainly mentions Quinine in his Chekhov biography, when I saw that the writer had credited him for all citations.
    I'll take your word for it that Dachshunds run well!