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25.7.17

À mon chevet: '1Q84'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The taxi's radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček's Sinfonietta -- probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn't seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music.

How many people could recognize Janáček's Sinfonietta after hearing just the first few bars? Probably somewhere between "very few" and "almost none." But for some reason, Aomame was one of the few who could.

Janáček composed his little symphony in 1926. He originally wrote the opening as a fanfare for a gymnastics festival. Aomame imagined 1926 Czechoslovakia: The First World War had ended, and the country was freed from the long rule of the Hapsburg Dynasty. As they enjoyed the peaceful respite visiting central Europe, people drank Pilsner beer in cafés and manufactured handsome light machine guns. Two years earlier, in utter obscurity, Franz Kafka had left the world behind. Soon Hitler would come out of nowhere and gobble up this beautiful little country in the blink of an eye, but at the time no one knew what hardships lay in store for them. This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: "At the time, no one knew what was coming." Listening to Janáček's music, Aomame imagined the carefree winds sweeping across the plains of Bohemia and thought about the vicissitudes of history.

In 1926 Japan's Taisho Emperor died, and the era name was changed to Showa. It was the beginning of a terrible, dark time in this country, too. The short interlude of modernism and democracy was ending, giving way to fascism. [...]

Eyes closed, Aomame listened to the music, allowing the lovely unison of the brasses to sink into her brain. Just then it occurred to her that the sound quality was too good for a radio in a taxicab. Despite the rather low volume at which it was playing, the sound had true depth, and the overtones were clearly inaudible. She opened her eyes and leaned forward to study the dashboard stereo. The jet-black device shone with a proud gloss. She couldn't make out its brand name, but it was obviously high end, with lots of knobs and switches, the green numerals of the station readout clear against the black panel. This was not the kind of stereo you expected to see in an ordinary fleet cab. [...]

Why, though, Aomame wondered, had she instantly recognized the piece to be Janáček's Sinfonietta? And how did she know it had been composed in 1926? She was not a classical music fan, and she had no personal recollections involving Janáček, yet the moment she heard the opening bars, all her knowledge of the piece came to her by reflex, like a flock of birds swooping through an open window. The music gave her an odd, wrenching kind of feeling. There was no pain or unpleasantness involved, just a sensation that all the elements of her body were being physically wrung out. Aomame had no idea what was going on. Could Sinfonietta actually be giving me this weird feeling?

-- Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (trans. by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel), pp. 3-6
My traversal of Haruki Murakami's books -- Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running -- has come up against the big kahuna, the sprawling, 1000-page 1Q84. Some reviews and other readers had put me off the book for a while, but it turns out to be a fascinating read that flows by easily. The title, it seems to me, should be read as "Q-teen Eighty-Four," which is the closest way to realize the concept from the book: the title of George Orwell's famous book, newly popular again in the Trump era, with the second digit replaced by the Japanese character kyu.

If you are not one of the "very few" who can imagine the sound of the opening fanfare section of Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta as you read this book, listen to the embedded video several times and it will become indelible. The piece runs throughout this fascinating book, a dual narrative that follows two main characters in alternating chapters. All of the hallmarks of Murakami's other books are here, too: the suspension of the laws or reality (the reference to Kafka in this passage is not coincidental), the explosive violence, the sexual tension. I'll reserve judgment until I reach the end of the book, but I am surprised that some critics could have missed the boat on this one.

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