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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tengo Kawana as Odysseus in Haruki Murakami's "1Q84"

Tengo Kawana, the protagonist of Haruki Murakami's "1Q84," is part Odysseus and part Stephen Dedalus.  There's certainly a journey to his problems but also the perverse palpitations that the journey is an empty one, and that just like Dedalus' epiphany, the rewards are simply not worth the cause.  As a master of characterization, Murakami creates a Tengo Kawana that is the epitome of Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces."  Of course many readers feel it is useless to follow a hero on a journey that yields no reward, but with Tengo it is much different.  I say this not only because the young man is a highly identifiable with the reader, but mainly because sympathy/empathy (especially brought out for an imaginary character) is a human gift close to extinction these days.  Tengo is the person you want to sit down next to, the complete stranger crying in the subway car whom you don't know but you wish you could put your arm around him and console him in some way.
To begin with, Tengo's past is as tragic as they come in fiction.  His earliest memory is that of his mother exposing her breast to a man Tengo know it is not his father (hence the right or wrong conclusion that his mother was an adulterer).  The memory follows him to adult life, after a childhood where his mother, having disappeared from his life, is particularly present in the form of emotional pain.  Tengo's father, an NHK subscription fee collector is distant, resentful and emotionally abusive to him, taking Tengo on long subscription collecting routes.  There's a chapter in the middle of the novel when Tengo goes out and visit his elderly father at a nursing home.  On his way there he reads a paperback of short stories which includes a story entitled "Town of Cats."  The visit yields very few answers for poor Tengo, although he realizes he didn't go there seeking any.  The imagery and emotional beat of this chapter is excruciatingly painful and might make the toughest of readers shed a tear.

Enter Mr Ushikawa, a mysterious character who works for a "foundation" seeking to give Tengo a large amount of money in order for Tengo to work on his own novel uninterrupted.  What is happening in reality is Mr Ushikawa is trying to purchase Tengo's exit from the complicated world of "1Q84" (the parallel world, not the novel) for a purpose that is unclear and not yet revealed at this point in the novel.  It is clear, however, that Tengo's involvement in the re-writing of "Air Chrysalis" is the main factor behind Ushikawa's persistent ways; at least, that much is clear!  And as new revelations continue (such as the double-flip with the "dowager" and her potential connection to "The Little People"), it would be easy to connect Ushikawa as another agent of "The Little People," although at this point it strikes me quite unlikely due to its over-simplistic twist (not a habit by a master-conniver such as Murakami).  I wouldn't be surprise if Ushikawa turns out to be Tengo's real father, etc., but that's just my imagination.
"The Town of Cats" story appears as an allegory to the larger plot issues of "1Q84."  Will there be a revelation regarding this?  Will Ushikawa's character turn out as the archetypal Shakespeare's court jester, coming in in the middle of a serious scene to make some over-the-top remark, a seemingly nonsense statement that ends up being the key to the entire play.  I continue to read this novel with great care and calculated concentration... I don't think I've enjoyed this so much since graduate school.

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