Courtesy Angela Tang

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore


kafka

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

Haruki Murakami has for been for as long as I have been reading words written by him, a soul among         billions in this world, who understands the various mysterious pertaining to the fringes of the world and    what our subconscious mind perceives of things around us. You may call him my favourite author — and   that wouldn’t be a lie since I greatly admire his writing style — which both in its style and content —       manages to capture those mysteries we didn’t know existed, but which always did. He brings out these questions from the fringes of our minds which we weren’t aware of before.

The Fog

Reading his novels is a surreal experience in the truest sense. Often his stories wrap themselves in this bizarre fantasy world which despite its realistic appearance is rooted in something alien. I am fascinated by how he manages to weave around passages on thoughts that have been troubling us — of memories, of loss, of love, of desire — into such beautifully written passages which amid the bizarre fantasy setting reflect the dream-like characteristics of it but also how our own subconscious mind often functions. Never a product of a single thought but always made up of many.

His novels are like puzzles without a definition – one that have no clear solution until you have found it. All his stories are that — ones which oscillate between being bizarre and making sense beyond words — the kind that makes you pause, look up and stare at the empty space in front of you for several moments trying to grasp at something beyond the fog.

That is an apt description of how I feel when I read most of his books. Like I’m grappling with an undefined entity beyond the fog. I can neither see it nor can I feel it, but I know it exists. Occasionally, the fog clears for the slightest moments and I catch glimpses of the question I have been fighting with.

Overview – Dark Prophecies and Oedipus

Kafka on the Shore is his 2007 novel, a book released at a point in his career when his worldwide popularity was hitting new highs. It is unusual for any Japanese author to get recognition from the rest of the world to the level he has achieved but when you see the universal themes his works embrace and how his characters’ lives are always spent in pursuit of a purpose unknown to them. His stories can be described as journeys without any known destination or direction — they are journeys with a self-contained purpose. The milestones in these journeys are indications of where you are headed — each milestone a piece that slowly fills up the jigsaw as your destination slowly forms into shape.

These are similar machinations behind the lines that make up Kafka on the Shore. Typically for a Murakami novel, it has its central character in pursuit for his own self. Unusually so, this time it isn’t a thirty-something lost in the waves of time and suffering from a mid-life crisis. This time, his protagonist is a 15-year old boy named Kafka Tamura. His pursuit is of discovering his own self but not through a deep introspection or through your dreams. You do not have that pleasure when you are young — your dreams reflect more of your fantasies than of the real world. Your experience of the world outside is limited.

Murakami realizes that and alters his traditional formula in an important manner to accommodate Kafka’s pursuit for his self in the world outside him.

Unusually, Murakami chooses to focus on a recurring theme taken from the Greek tragedy featuring Oedipus. Abandoned by his mother at birth, Kafka is left alone under the oppressive care of his father until he chooses to break free from it by running away. His act seen as a proof that escape is sometimes indeed an agent of change.

He lives under a dark prophecy of his father — one which mirrors that of Oedipus, that he shall kill his father, mate with his sister and his mother before losing himself.

There are a lot of ways this could have gone sour but thankfully Murakami handles this with an indirect approach. The Oedipus theme runs through the very core of Kafka on the Shore but it is never overpowering enough to take centerstage.

Structure — Parallel Odysseys

In fact, Kafka’s odyssey runs in parallel with an old man named Nakata who can talk to cats, convinces lost cats to return to their homes and is apparently hollow. The latter fact plays a key role in the story but I shall not spoil it for you.

Instead, I will like to emphasize on how Murakami repeats the pattern of combining two parallel journeys in a similar manner to how he did in the sublime Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World almost two decades back. By alternating chapters between these journeys, Murakami often manages to slowly unveil the loose but well-defined connections these journeys have. In this case, it is a lot more direct and less abstract than it was in Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World, but nonetheless this structural decision works for a number of reasons:

  • for revealing the afore-mentioned similarities between the odysseys and the rather obvious connections they may share
  • when one of the plot threads slows down, the other can still manage to entertain — thus maintaining the “page turner” trait which has made Murakami’s recent novels so accessible for the less patient readers worldwide
  • an interesting observation is that often one of the plot threads slows down almost as if it were waiting for the other thread to catch up. It is a fact in one situation in the novel, but I wonder if this were the main reason why Murakami chose to make such a structural decision

The chapters are also arranged in a very interesting manner — each threads are either relatively ahead or behind chronologically to one another but never simultaneous.

Talking Cats, Raining Fishes and Undead WWII Soldiers

“In everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

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It wouldn’t be a Murakami novel without the bizarre. In Kafka on the Shore, there are plenty of that. Talking cats are the first to appear who often fall into idle conversations with the old Nakata. After a peculiar incident that acts as a chief propellant to the narrative, Nakata loses that ability to talk and becomes more of a clairvoyant and can rain fishes instead.

If I were to analyze about Nakata’s character, I’d say he is not a character. Instead, he is a mere vessel — a literary one — which both remotely supplements Kafka’s search for his true self and also acts as an embodied representation of how Kafka’s internal conflict.

Him losing ability to converse with cats parallels with Kafka’s loss of innocence — both after his father’s murder and him sleeping with his apparent “sister”. 

Nakata being able to rain fishes is just another display of his supernatural ability, one which I interpret being as a replacement of being able to converse with cats — perhaps the empowerment Kafka feels after getting the better of his father, his captor and oppressor for most of his young life.

Late, in the novel, Kafka ventures out against the advice of his wise friends into a mysterious forest. This forest evolves pretty much into a labyrinth where people lose themselves if they go too deep. Also, time doesn’t move deep in the forest. Which is why he comes across two WWII soldiers who haven’t aged since the day they defected from the army.

This venture into the labyrinth of a forest is the most direct representation of Kafka venturing into the deepest recesses of his self. He discovers a city untouched by time — his true self — the core of his personality, if you seek a more elaborate term.

Writing — Of Memories Lost

“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.”

Murakami’s writing has encapsulated his mysterious yet strangely profound and universal themes and Kafka on the Shore arguably contains some of the finest passages he has ever written. Due credit needs to be given to Philip Gabriel who translated the original text from Japanese. There are occasional idiosyncrasies that are bound to occur but I think the beauty of what Murakami conveyed is retained.

One of my chief criticisms is that a lot of what he writes in Kafka on the Shore seems less purposeful than his previous works. Unlike The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where the narrative often segues into monologues or side-stories that relate to central narrative, however vaguely it may be, Kafka on the Shore has a surprising amount of self-indulgence in regards to Western culture that is expected from a Murakami novel. There are occasional breakaways to appreciate classical composers including Schubert and Beethoven or disruptive cameos from inanimate brand icons like Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders.

Rather than adding to the tale, these elements subtract from the entire picture. They break the spell and they stick out as a sore thumb to the cleverly constructed riddle Murakami otherwise constructs.

Central sequences to the novel are the ones spent in the library and the aforementioned venture into the labyrinthine forest.

Courtesy Angela Tang

Courtesy Angela Tang

The former is where it charts up some of its most beautifully constructed passages. Ones pertaining to memories and of nostalgia. Miss Saeki’s character — the one who is apparently (since facts are a luxury in Murakami’s world) Kafka’s mother particularly brings out the very best of Murakami. Hers’ is a character living a life that peaked too early. She lived through perfection before she had lived through the worst. Her rest of the life was entirely built on the lone regret that everything beyond that point was a downfall. It is a beautifully written character whose regrets are brilliantly brought out and whose tragedy ties brilliantly with Kafka on the Shore’s central narrative as well as the recurring theme of Oedipus.

Another recurring element which are a delight to behold are the conversations between Kafka and Crow — his mysterious imaginary friend who is possibly his alter-ego and the sole adversary(or friend, depending on how you see it) throughout this entire adventure.

A select passage from their conversation, one of the best I’ve seen from Murakami since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle :

““Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

An you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Criticisms

As I mentioned earlier, Murakami’s novels are like a puzzle you cannot quite solve until you are facing its answer. A question defined by its answer, if you may.

However, Kafka on the Shore can be a taxing read because unlike its’ obvious inspiration, Murakami’s own psychological noir and fantasy mash-up Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World, this novel is not as rewarding. An entire thread starring Nakata is one purely for the convenience for the other. On its own, it can be amusing to read initially, but after a point it essentially slows down to a drawl, eventually stopping to a halt. The writing and narrative meanders about the point on Nakata’s thread while Kafka readies to make the all-important venture into the labyrinthine forest.

Even when the book is over and the answers lay all bare before you, it is not just as satisfyingThe Oedipus theme seems more like a supplementary to Kafka’s self-discovery rather than a central theme of its own. Incredibly disappointing for something the book spends much time fantasizing about.

In terms of length, the book at 614 pages could be shorter by atleast 200 odd pages if it hadn’t bothered all the unnecessary excursions on Nakata’s thread quite simply because Kafka’s thread hadn’t quite reached the point where it needed to.

Conclusion

Kafka on the Shore can be seen as Murakami’s “Greatest Hits” — one which encapsulates much of the abstract themes he has been writing about for over three decades. It starts with an ambitious theme that takes its inspirations in Greek tragedy of Oedipus and while it does manage to dish out many profound moments, fairly sizable parts of it fall flat.

It is a simple case of one half of the story running out of ideas sooner and while the other half manages to hold to your attention, the frustration at the futility of it all engulfs your experience.

What often matters at the end of a Murakami’s novel is that you are able to get answers. With those answers, you unravel the question. Why the characters undertook the journey. Why you read through the book.

In case of Kafka on the Shore, those answers come. But they come too late, after too many meandering excursions and are ultimately too sparse for you to care.

For a novel that captures Murakami at his best and at his worst (which is still pretty OK, in plain terms), Kafka on the Shore is an excellent starting point for those who are intrigued by Murakami’s legend and are brave enough to embrace his ambitious work. For those who aren’t, I would still suggest Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World as his best introduction to his surreal works while Norwegian Wood is obviously his most popular work among masses owing to its nostalgia-heavy romantic themes.

Score:

3.5 out of 5

Discussion

  1. Kafka on the Shore is the only Murakami I own (I do most of my shopping in used book shops, leaving my reading to random chance). Very nice analysis, makes me want to read it. Good to know it’ll work as an introduction. Sophocles is one of my favorite playwrights and I do like it when people riff off of him. That and I’m very keen to explore Japanese literature having read a few of Yukio Mishima’s books…

    nymith

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