Big (though not Best) Books of 2011: Murakami's 1Q84 and Eco's The Prague Cemetery

on Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Ok, let me knock over two of the biggest books of the year with the shortest reviews you are likely to read of them.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
There's a certain sense of achievement one is supposed to feel upon finishing a thousand page book. I remember feeling it when I closed Infinite Jest, despite the frustratingly abrupt ending. Others have told me of a similar feeling with War and Peace. To us readers, the thousand page book is our everest. Why then did I feel nothing with Haruki Murakami's much-lauded new brick, 1Q84? I was so excited for it to come out, and was instantly enthralled by its pacy, off-kilter beginning. It had me hoping that the book would turn out to be the 12-inch megamix of my favourite Murakami novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. But as the dual storyline progressed - Aomame, the righteous assassin, executing wife-beating scum and Tengo, the hack wannabe novelist, roped into rewriting the mysterious novella (or perhaps revelation) of the 17-year-old daughter of a cult leader - I slowly began to feel a disconnect that I still cannot explain. There is something vaguely China Mieville-ish about the whole thing; the multi-layered contemplation of duality, the peculiar sci-fi tropes, even the echo of a Shakespearean romance. And yet I found it all lacking in substance. Murakami didn't really seem to be saying anything. Eight hundred pages in and I was praying for it to end. Indeed, if I didn't have my annoying book-finishing OCD, I'd have put it down. Reading 1Q84 is like eating forty litres of sorbet. But at least my wish sort of came true. 1Q84 was a wild sheep chase. Just not in the way I'd hoped!

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is a literary force of nature. Nary a year goes by without something from him, be it a philosophical treatise or a complex work of literary theory. His novels are much fewer and far between, and so the arrival of each one is heralded as a major event amongst book nerds. When I first heard about The Prague Cemetery, fireworks exploded in my heart. A novel by one of the greatest historical fiction writers, revolving around an alleged event in my second homeland, about one of the darkest periods in the history of the Jewish people. It's like Eco was writing the thing just for me. The moment it arrived at my doorstep I plunged in head first, sans floaties, and was overcome by a sensation I'd never before associated with Eco; mirth. The first chapter of The Prague Cemetery is damn funny. Yes, so full of piss and vinegar is the narrator Simonini that I had to stop reading periodically just to catch my breath. No religious group comes out unscathed in those first few pages - Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, Jesuits, you name it. And for the next four-hundred pages he just doesn't let up. Simonini is a master forger, and as such is well-placed to be an important player in the raging conspiracy-mongering of late-Nineteenth century Europe. From minor frauds to the Dreyfus Affair and ultimately the greatest forgery of them all, The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, Eco posits Simonini as the scoundrel behind them all (though, in a poor plot decision, he gives Simonini a Hyde-like alter ego to operationalise the unrelenting vitriol). As always with Eco the writing is flawless and the research impeccable (pretty much everyone in the book bar Simonini and one or two others actually existed), but there is something unsettling about the whole undertaking which only becomes apparent as the novel progresses. What I first took to be hilarious soon became grating and then, borderline offensive. Although I realise it was done for a certain end, and it might have been redeemed in the final couple of chapters, there was an air of ambiguity about the anti-semitism which, if read by the uninformed reader, might add fuel to the conspiracies Eco is lampooning. Ultimately it is a dangerous gamble that might only have partially paid off.


redhead said...

That Eco sounds wonderful! I've been a bit hit and miss with him, but Prague Cemetery sounds like a hit.

The Bookworm said...

See I would have thought so too but it just didn't deliver. I guess it's still worth a read, but take your expectations down a couple of notches.

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