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Los Angeles Review of Books: Haruki Murakami, “Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa”

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 opens in the middle of an unusually scored Tokyo traffic jam: “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.” His passenger, a young woman named Aomame, turns out to be not just a part-time assassin and one of the 928-page novel’s three main characters, but something of a classical music aficionado as well: “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.”

Not many pages later, Aomame has, at the driver’s suggestion, ditched the immobile cab in favor of an alternate route to her next victim: a set of emergency stairs built into the expressway that takes her not just to ground level but into an alternate reality. (“[P]lease remember,” the driver ominously cautions as she departs on foot, “things are not what they seem.”) Apart from the unrepresentative third-person omniscient narration, a device with which Murakami describes himself as uncomfortable, the scene, with its conspicuous reference to Western culture in an explicitly Japanese setting on one side of the boundary between this world and a mysterious other, neatly showcases some of the most often remarked-upon qualities of Murakami’s fiction.

The narration in Murakami’s earlier novels comes in the voice of protagonists something like himself, or his younger self: Japanese men in their 20s or 30s, individualist urbanites who enjoy cats, cooking, admiring women’s ears, pondering the depth of wells, quoting English-language novels and films, and listening to records. Though 1Q84 offers no obvious authorial surrogate, Aomame shares with Murakami the ability to know a Janáček — and to identify which Janáček — when she hears one. The Sinfonietta’s inclusion in a Murakami novel has ensured that many of the author’s countrymen now also know it when they hear it: world-famous Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa’s recording of the festive, elaborate, slightly maddening piece turned best seller in Japan not long after the book did.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.