Haruki Murakami’s contemporary classic Kafka On The Shore is a gradually growing dreamscape, pulling us in inexorably into a fantastical space where memories, dreams, and parallel worlds blur together, setting the characters on a journey determined by fate long ago. This is the odyssey of Kafka Tumara, 15 years old, running away from home; and the simple, ageing Nakata, who can talk to cats and whose quiet life is turned upside down. Borrowing from odd American cultural icons, Greek mythology, modernist philosophy, Murakami weaves a tale of increasing oddity.
To escape his father’s dark prophesy, and after scrupulous preparation, Kafka leaves home in Tokyo. Long after his mother and sister leave him, he leaves himself, searching but not searching for them and any other place that is not his father’s home. Kafka’s chapters alternate with that of Nakata, beginning with transcripts from witnesses of an odd event during World War II: during one primary school excursion, all the children loose consciousness, becoming unresponsive but with eyes wide open, looking at something beyond. Within hours, they all recover with the exception of Nakata: and the once brilliant boy having lost all memory of what has come before wakes with the ability to converse with cats. While both Kafka and Nakata share a ritual in their worlds, there is nuance and differentiation to their narration, as their beautiful and inescapably sad stories are told. Slowly but surely, their stories are infused with more magic and unreality as they are pulled into parallel journeys where the path is clear, but not quite.
The impression I had at the end of this book is very far from the one I ended with. As the fantasy slowly infuses further into the world, it becomes increasingly visceral and Oedipal; a place with so many metaphors it becomes hard to establish what to accept and what to interrogate. This is ok, and a challenging piece of literature is a good thing, but let’s get down to it: Kafka kills his father and has sex with his mother. Or, in this increasingly dream-like world, does he? The basic Oedipus myth tells us this is going to happen but when it does, maybe, the cool almost detached tone of the boy makes it more troubling than it already is: does he have any agency in his life, in what he is doing with his family, and what is happening to him? Is this life, or a made up memory, a projection, a fantasy? Initially on the surface, it also seems that the “not very bright” Mr Nakata exercises little control in his own story, but as he is propelled on, he has a strength and insight beyond any imagining. At no point in the increasingly odd story did I put the book down in disgust or confusion or disbelief. But once away from he world, I think about what has just happened, and I shake my head at what is going on.
There is a beauty in what Murakami is creating but at times the phrasing is clumsy and awkward. It’s hard to know if this is Murakami, or his translator (in this edition, published by Vintage Books in 2005, it’s Philip Gabriel) but it was disappointing that it was sometimes so jarring. On the whole though, the creeping-up feeling of the fantasy world, is masterful, slowly slipping from within the realm of experience to the magical: the witching hour where you don’t know if it’s a dream or reality, fish raining from the sky, lost World War II soldiers never ageing in a forest, a ghost-like pimp taking you to a beautiful, Hegel-spouting prostitute. There is no justification or explanation, just a gradual slide into this parallel magical space. Maybe this is ok, but as Colonel Sanders (yes, Colonel Sanders) says about half way through, “Anton Chekhov put it best when he said, ‘If a pistol appears in a story, eventually it’s got to be fired.'”.
I still don’t quite know what happened to me while reading this book: there are so many elements that feel ridiculous or nonsensical, and on further examination I still can’t – and perhaps don’t want to – understand if they are justified. Kafka’s 15-year-old-boy obsession with his own penis (cleaning it, what colour it is, when it gets hard) while easily equatable to the penis envy of the Oedipal element in the book seems both understandable and unnecessary. There are ghost characters, a flute to harvest souls, a girl/woman who died at 20 but predicted and lives on into the future, a what-the-hell battle between a man in a red tracksuit and a crow. I suppose all these elements layer into one another to create this magical realist world, but the surreal outlandishness of it doesn’t always feel okay.
Kafka On The Shore is magical, confronting, disturbing, and a little bit bitingly beautiful. There is so much left unanswered, but it doesn’t feel like Murakami has forgotten to fill us in, but the fates have just not told that bit of the story yet. This book is huge in scope, bewildering and spellbinding: the same power that propels Kafka and Nakata propels the reader into this challenging and magical story.