Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Haruki Murakami's 1Q84

Haruki Murakami's novels often read like a collaboration between Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland & The End of the World, Dance Dance Dance, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, and his latest novel 1Q84 all feature laconic, self-sufficient but emotionally incomplete protagonists, indifferent to or alienated from worldly measures of success, who find themselves unexpectedly thrust into the role of detective when they come into contact with a dreamlike alternate reality.

1Q84 follows two characters (Aomame and Tengo) who shared a brief but intense moment of connection in childhood, and as adults separately find themselves in the world of "1Q84"—a slightly askew version of 1984 Tokyo. The two begin to search for one another in this odd new world, while both are being pursued in turn by Ushikawa, a detective hired by a vengeful religious cult.

The cult is concerned with Tengo because he has ghost-written a best-selling novel that reveals the cult's secrets and describes aspects of 1Q84. The ostensible author of the novel (entitled Air Chrysalis) is a beautiful teenaged girl who has escaped from the cult. The cult is also after Aomame, because she has murdered its leader, a serial rapist of underage girls. The cult leader is the latest and last of a series of killings of abusive men that Aomame has carried out at the behest of a wealthy woman called The Dowager who runs a safe house for victims of domestic violence.

The unusual details of the world of 1Q84, the multiple pursuits, and the novel's split structure (chapters alternate between Aomame and Tengo, with Ushikawa eventually added to the mix) make for compelling reading. And readers of Murakami's other books will recognize some familiar themes, such as lesbianism, an intensely erotic focus on women's ears, Western music (in this case, Janáček's Sinfonietta), and brand-name clothes, drinks and other accessories.

But 1Q84 shows signs of hasty translation. Awkwardnesses occur with dismaying frequency, especially in the portions of the novel translated by Jay Rubin. For example, when NHK and the Akutagawa Prize are mentioned in the novel, they are accompanied by explanations clearly intended for Western readers, and almost certainly not written by Murakami. Doesn't Rubin trust us to go to Wikipedia if a reference isn't clear?

Then there's the sentence "After leaving Komatsu, Tengo walked to Kinokuniya, bought several books, and started reading them over a beer in a nearby bar" (p. 174). Reading "them"? Personally, I've never been able to read several books simultaneously, but perhaps Tengo is more talented than I am. There are verb tense issues as well; on page 331 a lengthy description of two men in a room is followed by "When Tengo entered the room..." Everything that's been described up to this point in Tengo's chapters has been limited to what he has experienced, so it's jarring for the narrative voice to suddenly become omniscient and describe men Tengo hasn't yet seen. Perhaps the phrase should have been rendered "When Tengo had entered the room..."

This is not to absolve Murakami of sloppy writing. On page 87, Aomame has just begun to wonder about disturbing details that don't seem to match those of her familiar world. "Whatever might have happened, she would have to do something to make the world whole again..." This seems like a very premature thought for a character who is just beginning to suspect that something's wrong; she doesn't finally conclude that she's crossed over into another reality for another twenty pages (page 110, to be exact).

Then there are clunkers like "And his experiences...had changed Tengo profoundly" (p. 426)—isn't the very first thing beginning writers learn is that they must show, not tell? Late in the novel Aomame is holding a guarded conversation over the phone with The Dowager's assistant Tamaru in which both are careful to speak in code about her activities—until Aomame says, "He knew from the outset that I had gone there to kill him" (p. 880), and they both continue openly using the word "kill" for the rest of the conversation. So much for being careful. And there is Aomame herself: a beautiful bisexual miniskirted assassin with a designer wardrobe, sexy ears and an inexplicable lust for middle-aged men with receding hairlines. There just seems too much of an admixture of middle-aged authorial fantasy in this character.

Finally, there's the novel's schematic quality: if Chekhov's famous dictum (ironically quoted in 1Q84) is that a gun that appears in the first act will be fired by the third, then—spoiler alert!—two characters living their stories in parallel must ultimately meet. So while I was immersed in the book I found it difficult to put down, when I closed it after finishing the final chapter I felt vaguely disappointed. The novel seemed to be ending just when the most interesting part of the story—Tengo and Aomame's emergence from their emotional shells—was about to begin.

Janáček's Sinfonietta (3rd movement)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Kubelik, conductor

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Haydn chamber music

For many years I resisted the appeal of Joseph Haydn's music. It seemed too clever to be profound, too pleasant to be emotionally affecting. Haydn also focussed on vocal music to a lesser extent than either Handel or Mozart, and his surviving operas, unlike theirs, are rarely performed or recorded. Perhaps Haydn's greatest accomplishments were in the string quartet and the symphony, two genres that I rarely listen to. Until recently, anyway: over the course of the last year or so I've come to have a greater appreciation for Haydn's music; and to my surprise, that appreciation developed through remarkable performances of his chamber music.

Most of Haydn's career was spent in the service of the Esterhazy court. Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus I was an amateur musician whose favorite instrument was an unusual type of viol called the baryton. Like the larger viola da gamba, the baryton had seven bowed strings and a fretted neck; like a viola d'amore, the baryton had a second set of strings that resonated when the first set were bowed; and like the theorbo, the baryton's sympathetic strings could be plucked (the baryton had a hollow neck, and the strings were plucked from behind, with the thumb of the left hand). Haydn composed about 175 pieces for the baryton, most of which were trios for viola, baryton and cello (Haydn himself probably played the viola part). I was introduced to these works through a wonderful recording on the Hungaroton label by Balázs Kakuk (baryton), Péter Lukács (viola) and Tibor Párkányi (cello). The combination of the three low stringed instruments creates a lovely sound, and lends more a hint of melancholy to the slower movements.

Here is a sample: the adagio from Trio no. 114, performed on 18th-century instruments by José Vazquez (baryton), Lucia Krommer (cello), and Christa Opriessnig (viola):

Hearing this marvelous music played on 18th-century instruments inspired me to seek out other period-instrument Haydn performances. I don't remember how I first discovered the string quartet recordings of the Quatuor Mosaïques, but they have such warmth and such a beautiful blending of sound that my resistance to Haydn was completely overcome.

Here is Quatuor Mosaïques performing the adagio from Haydn's Opus 77 No. 1. The musicians are Erich Höbarth (violin), Andrea Bischof (violin), Anita Mitterer (viola), and Christoph Coin (cello):

Quatuor Mosaïques has recorded Haydn's quartets Op. 20/32, 33, 64, 76, and 77 along with the quartet arrangement of The Seven Last Words of Christ (Op. 51). They are available in two boxed sets at a cost of under $7 per disc—an amazing bargain for music and performances of this quality.

We were privileged to see Quatuor Mosaïques in concert on Friday night in Berkeley in a program spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Haydn's Quartet Opus 76 No. 4 ("Sunrise"), Felix Mendelssohn's Quartet Op. 13, "Ist es Wahr?" (Is it true?), and Franz Schubert's Quartet Op. 29 No. 1, "Rosamunde." After playing together for more than 25 years these musicians are perfectly attuned to one another, and each quartet became a subtle conversation. As good as their recordings are, their live performance offered a richness and spontaneity that no recording can match.