I’m a bit partial to magical realism and so relished the chance of tackling Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In the case of Kafka on the Shore Murakami fuses magical realism together with fantasy, then adds a healthy dose of Kafkaesque surrealism, dashes of sex, horror, and well, talking cats, and characters in the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders! Welcome to the strange and mysterious world of Haruki Murakami. For those who dislike magical realism and fear they might struggle with Murakami don’t give up – the fantasy quest, classical framework – in the form of Oedipus Rex – and thriller-style page-turning will keep most readers enthralled for the duration. Only at the end will some of us wonder: what the hell just happened? Cast firmly as a postmodernist, Murakami refreshingly states: “To tell the truth, I don’t really have a firm grasp of what’s meant by postmodernism, but I do have the sense that what I’m trying to do is slightly different. … I want to be a writer who tells stories unlike other writers.” On that count most would say Murakami succeeds with some ease though he is of course following in the footsteps of Sophocles and Franz Kafka. The book won the World Fantasy prize in 2006 and the Franz Kafka Memorial Prize, also in 2006.
Kafka on the Shore commences by tracing two separate strands that eventually tie together. We have the journey of Kafka Tamura, 15, who runs away from home to escape his father and finds himself in the Takamatsu prefecture, revelling in his freedom, narrating his adventure in the first person. For many years he has held in his mind a photo of the private Nomura Library that is open to the public, a place he’d always wanted to visit since, and there he travels, building friendships with a girl on the overnight bus, and the helpful library assistant, Oshima. But Kafka, as his name suggests, is no ordinary boy. We soon discover that Kafka is a name he has chosen to hide his real identity. We discover too, that he is cursed, although we don’t know how, and that he has a strange friend named Crow – or is it an alter-ego or some other personality? – who appears throughout to give Kafka advice. The omen is very mysterious; Kafka refers to it casually, as if it doesn’t exist, for example: “I explain everything to her, from the time I left home. I leave out the omen part, though. That, I know, I can’t tell just anyone.” You would think that such a dark omen would be one of the first things Kafka has to say about himself in the narrative, but Murakami deliberately obfuscates; it is all part of the ‘hook’ to keep our interest piqued. This off-handedness is soon dusted off however, for as time passes the omen takes on more substance.
We are also introduced at the start to a very strange event, in the middle of WWII, where a group of school children, out to pick mushrooms in the hills of rural Japan, simultaneously collapse into unconsciousness. The military investigate, fearing a chemical weapon, but there is no explanation. Of the sixteen children, only one does not regain consciousness and is whisked away to hospital. His name is Nakata. We then move to the present day where the strange Mr Nakata, cat-whisperer and storm-predictor, who is not very bright after his ‘childhood fever’ and who talks about himself in the third person, finds lost cats for an bit of extra money by interviewing other cats. (This explains the black cat on the otherwise plain cover of the book). Nakata has another problem – his shadow is faint, and after a while he realises he wants the other half back. It seems that wherever he has been in this unconscious state, he has left half of himself behind.
Meanwhile Oshima takes Kafka under his wing and soon Kafka is offered not just a job at the library but is allowed to live in a guest room adjacent to the library itself. The way it is offered to him is odd though, for Oshima – who is not quite what ‘he’ seems – tells him he can become part of the library. The word part is used several times as if to underscore some form of occult fusion about to take place. Miss Saeki – the guide of the Nomura Foundation that runs the library – had released a single in the 1970’s and it was a smash-hit. It’s name? Kafka on the Shore. Not only that, but the room that Kafka stays in was the room of Saeki’s one and only love – her other half, a Nomura family member, killed when he was twenty. Other connections become apparent too. The mad Johnnie Walker turns out to be Kafka’s father, a world-renowned sculptor, and it is clear why Kafka would want to run away from such a beast.
All sorts of strange events take place. Fish and leeches fall from the sky, seemingly following Nakata as he decides he must leave Tokyo and begin a quest of his own, helped by a truck driver named Hoshino. Meanwhile, Kafka finds himself unconscious one evening, covered in blood, but unaware of how he came to be where he woke up and whose blood it is. Pretty soon, we find Kafka playing Miss Saeki’s song and the lyrics – naturally bordering on the surreal – take on a special significance, including the ‘entrance stone’, gateway it seems to another realm and the archetypal fantasy device. It seems Miss Saeki has found this entrance stone. What’s more, Mr Nakata has determined after travelling from Tokyo toward Takamatsu – where Kafka is hiding out – that he too must find the entrance stone.
A loop, where time folds in on itself and repeats seems to be at play. But not just time, places too – there seems a parallel existence that people can come from and go to. It is a place for lovers it seems, and as such, is a place of pain as much as pleasure. But when Hoshino has an encounter with a black cat, we sense the loop begin afresh. And so on one level we have a surreal fantasy quest – and it’s one wild and bizarre ride. But on another, parallel level, we have Kafka living out the Oedipal story.
Murakami dusts little wisdoms and philosophical ‘lessons’ into his writing like icing sugar. There is Oshima’s advice to Kafka, when telling him of Plato’s The Banquet describes Aristophanes and his legend of how there are three types of people, and how God took a knife and cut everyone in half, so that they would have to spend their lives trying to find their other half. The upshot is: “it’s really hard for people to live their lives alone.” We have Mr Otsuka, a cat, talking to Nakata: “There are all sorts of cats – just as there’re all sorts of people.”
And Yeats: “In dreams begin responsibility”.
And Goethe: “Everything’s a metaphor.”
And Sophocles and TS Eliot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Berlioz – the list goes on, including a prostitute – pimped by Colonel Sanders no less – who quotes from French philosopher Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, as well as Hegel. In some ways, the educational aspect of all these historical and philosophical references reminded me a little bit of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.
For me, one of the most interesting journeys was that of Hoshino – the young man who helps Nakata on his wandering quest. His transformation from self-absorbed truck driver without an interest in books or music to the thoughtful man he becomes is convincing and wonderful. At the end this process he says to himself: “I think that whenever something happens in the future I’ll always wonder: ‘What would Mr Nakata say about this? What would Mr Nakata do?’”
In order to give you some idea of how bizarre the events are: the Japanese publishers set up a website for readers to post questions about the book. Over the course of three months, over 8,000 questions were posted and Murakami personally responded to over 1,200! On his English website. Murakami states that the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it more than once:
Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.
Of the song Kafka on the Shore, Murakami says that even he’s unsure what the lyrics mean(!). (Music is a very important part of many of Murakami’s novels; for him, music is “an indispensable part of my life.” Kafka on the Shore is rife with musical references: Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, The Beatles, Prince, Radiohead, and so on). I think the mysterious events are best summed up in one character’s advice to Kafka at the end: “Better not try to explain it, even to yourself.”(!)
Symbols – such as the metronome, crow, labyrinth, and so on – are repeated as if some patterned underbelly of answers ties everything together. But I’m not sure whether there is an answer. The key question of why Kafka’s mother abandoned him as a four-year-old boy is not really answered. There is the journey to forgiveness, but mostly, it seems to me, the story is about courage – the courage to overcome the burden of the past, no matter how cursed one might be.
I don’t know if it’s a spooky coincidence or something more sinister – or indeed playful – at work, but as I finished reading Kafka I brought up the internet and on the first page I browsed there was an advertisement for … Johnnie Walker!!
Oh, and for what it’s worth, dilettante is used by none other than Johnnie Walker when he says: “I’m not just some dilettante with time on his hands.” Any book that uses a word that’s close to my heart deserves praise in The Dilettante’s humble opinion, although I confess to being rather concerned that Johnnie Walker has let the proverbial talking cat out of the bag in describing me perfectly: a dilettante with too much time on his hands!
I’ll leave the last word to Murakami:
Every one of us is losing something precious to us … Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live for ever in your own private library.
What a nice life that would be!
The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.