Good writing should take you beyond your comfort zone all the while firmly holding your attention. Great writing does it while constantly expanding your comfort zone. While KAFKA ON THE SHORE might be a blemish or two shy of the latter, it’s definitely in the ballpark.
Save for two episodes, one at the beginning and one near the end, both entitled simply “A Boy Named Crow,” the novel relates the adventures of two men in alternating chapters, that progress like trains running in the same direction on parallel tracks. The first of these resembles a metaphysical fusion of “Catcher in the Rye” and “Oedipus Rex.” It is told largely in the first person, occasionally during times of duress switching to the second. The paralleling story, almost a shadow of the first, concerns a sixty-five year old savant, who can talk with cats, make odds things rain from the sky, and who is inexorably drawn into the heart of the fifteen year old boy’s personal churning universe. It is told as a third person narrative.
Along the way there is a murder, the mystery of why an innocent is covered in blood while the guilty remains clean, a bit of passion unbound as well as several intense religious experiences without the unnecessary burden of the religion.
The boy, who calls himself Kafka Tamura, is running away from a stern father, (who we later learn may be crazy as well) and an odious Oedipal curse. Kafka is also tangentially looking for his lost mother and sister. He is big for his age, largely self reliant, works out, is very intelligent, but remains emotionally withdrawn due to the nature of his father and the fact his mother vanished taking his older sister with her when he was four, leaving him without a clear memory of either of them. So, yeah, he has a few issues.
The savant, Nakata, was one of a group of children who, inexplicably went into a coma during a school outing circa WWII. While his classmates seemingly recovered a few hours later, Nakata wound up in another place altogether. His story begins as an oddity, switches to some herky-jerky quasi-official chapters relating the school incident leaving one wondering if aliens or secret weapons were involved, then morphs back into his life as a finder of lost cats, before gradually shifting into the adventure paralleling Kafka’s tale.
Kafka, after careful planning, hops a bus, makes a Bee-line from Tokyo to Takamatsu, soon to find refuge at a private library run by the mysterious Miss Saeki and her equally inscrutable assistant, Oshima, who becomes a mentor to the troubled boy. There are occasional sojourns to a cabin in a mysterious primeval forest, a relationship with a young woman he meets on the bus, Sakura, who also comes to his aid, and another with the spirit of a fifteen year old girl.
Nakata, who normally stays close to home in a neighborhood not far from Kafka’s father’s house, is drawn into some dangerously surreal business involving a cat killer. The oddest scene in the book involves the confrontation of the two madmen, the one utterly benign—the other equally malevolent. Nakata, like Kafka, comes to rely upon the kindness of strangers. His world is populated by simpler people (one of whom becomes his disciple as well as his caretaker,) and several Japanese personifications of American advertising icons.
The book has a heavy dose of occultism—mysticism for the genteel reader—involving, among other things, roving spirits of living people, dimensional gateways, archetypes, sacrifice and transference. It delves into the magic of music, nature, sex and human interaction in general while touching upon Greek tragedy and mythology, Christianity and Buddhism. It occasionally over indulges in the nature of bodily functions.
First published in Japanese in 2002, the 2005 English translation reads as if the book was written in English, given the number and variety of idioms, references and even rhymes that carry over seamlessly in the text. As a work of fiction, KAFKA ON THE SHORE is marvelously crafted, mysteriously presented and an oddly satisfying read.
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Vintage (January 3, 2006)
List price: $15.95