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Haruki Murakami: Slippery divide between fact and fiction 

Imagine a tale made out of this: a fitness instructor-cum-contract killer who is paid by a wealthy dowager to dispatch men who have hurt women "to another world" with a quick prick of an ice pick in the neck, and teams up with a policewoman to scour singles bars for (preferably balding) businessmen for raunchy one-night stands. A maths teacher-cum-budding novelist who is enlisted to ghost-write a story by a 17-year-old escapee from a secretive sect in the mountains, only to find himself not just drawn into a dangerous plot, but also playing an active part in creating a parallel world, in which there are two moons and everything is subtly different. A mysterious cult leader shrouded in darkness. A "tenacious bug" of an investigator with an abnormally large and misshapen head. And the Little People, who emerge at night through channels they open up from another dimension, to interfere with life on Earth.   

You might readily conclude that you've come across some potboiler full of sex, violence and way-out fantasy. And there is, of course, no small element of that in Japanese author Haruki Murakami's huge novel 1Q84, an epic that runs to more than 900 pages in the eagerly awaited English translation. First published in Japan in 2009-10 in three separate parts after much secrecy, intended to drum up anticipation, 1Q84 is now brought out in Britain in two volumes. Books 1 and 2, lucidly translated by Jay Rubin, are bound as one, while the separate Book 3 is just as seamlessly rendered into English by Philip Gabriel, publishers Harvill Secker taking the unusual measure of using two translators to speed up the process. No effort has been spared in promoting it — it comes complete with a countdown "until the world changes" on its publication website and a movie-style trailer.

1Q84 is certainly an engrossing, otherworldly mystery to lose yourself in, with a good deal of humour and a considerable thriller-esque, page-turning pull — especially in Book 2, when many key scenes occur and things get a notch further removed from reality. Reading it is an intense and addictive experience, and this is no mean feat at all. However, it is also far more than that — it's a highly ambitious work, which raises more questions than it resolves in its intricate plot. A more optimistic take on George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, kicking off in April that year just like the latter's dystopia, it is concerned with postmodern issues such as the rewriting of the past and the slippery dividing line between fact and fiction, exploring just how uncertain our grasp of reality can be, especially as the world we were born into morphs into somewhere quite different.

For the main characters, soon "things are not what they seem" as "the world switched tracks" from 1984 into 1Q84, where "Q is for ‘question mark'. A world that bears a question" (and pronounced the same as the Japanese number 9, a bit of clever word play). In its scope and complexity, 1Q84 is the complete opposite of its predecessor, Murakami's atmospheric but slight After Dark (published in Britain in 2007), and more in line with his earlier The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), a far broader, historically rich canvas which also explored a series of bizarre events.

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