Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami is a congenial, amusing, yet slow-moving novel that demonstrates the fundamental truth about fiction and storytelling in general: there are no rules. This novel could be called “magical realism” in that things occur that we know can’t occur and haven’t occurred and won’t occur, but that’s a tired term, and I’ll try to improve upon it in a minute.
Here we have a boy known as Kafka who has a tutelary Crow Boy companion (who appears occasionally, not systematically) fleeing home as “the toughest” fifteen-year old on the planet, perhaps trying to outrun his father’s prophecy that he would kill his father, and sleep with his mother and daughter. Somehow in the dreamscape of a casually narrated story, these things happen anyway--in fact, Kafka’s flight from home seems to lead to them.
In a parallel world, a man who can speak with cats, Nakata, is on the government dole having been rendered an idiot savant by a mysterious plane overflying Japan during WWII. He’s not real good at remembering things, can’t read, is pretty helpless, but he, too, dreams his way into Kafka’s world: he’s actually the one who kills Kafka’s father, a Japanese sculptor who isn’t well-developed in the novel but who, at the moment of his death, does a fine imitation of Johnnie Walker--you know, the logo figure on varying blends of scotch.
Then there are mystery worlds, a mystery library, the phantom sister/mother who becomes Kafka’s lover, and a companionable truck driver named Hoshino, who ferries Nakata around, enabling him to open and close the entry stone guarding the dream dimension.
All this undoubtedly has made for far too many academic papers probing the alternate realities Murakami proposes, name-dropping Kafka, Beethoven, a little bit of T. S. Eliot and a little bit of the philosopher Bergson along the way.
The strength of this book lies in its sincere main characters, their confusion, their good intentions, and the lyrical encounters Murakami arranges for them.
We are in contemporary Japan, we’re not altogether happy about that, we’d like to find a way out, Colonel Sanders (him too!) does his best to help us, and people do, sadly, actually die along the way.
Does this add up to a great novel? I wouldn’t think so. Maybe it’s a pretty good one. I do suspect that the English translation I read (by Philip Gabriel) is more pedestrian than Murakami’s original Japanese, but since I can’t read Japanese, that’s only a guess. I just thought the prose was too often humdrum and somewhat clunky.
A few years back I read Murakami’s short story collection, After the Quake, and found it forced in its emphasis on the meaninglessness of existence. This novel doesn’t read that way; the things it forces are forced for comic ironic effect, not tragic ironic effect.
To take Kafka on the Shore quite seriously for one final reflection, I’d say this: Artists and their audiences live on the spiritual rumors that we hear in our minds and hearts but can’t quite pin down; they have faith that through the metaphors of art (including literature, of course) it is possible to capture and present a sense of reality beyond realism...and that that reality beyond realism is more important, more fundamental, than mere reality itself. I personally don’t think this has much to do with what is known as transcendence; I think it has more to do with the way the human psyche has evolved: it is full of rich, archaic, symbolic material. That’s what Murakami was shooting for when he wrote this book. He hadn’t given up on anything yet; he was still trying to suggest that we are more than we think we are as conduct our daily lives.
For more of my comments on contemporary fiction, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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