Kafka on the Shore is a novel based on two story lines following protagonists who couldn’t be more different, yet whose fates are intertwined. The novel is quite confusing to read and you need ample time and patience to gain an understanding of the story. Kafka on the Shore is a mix between surrealism and magical realism, which leads to a read where sometimes you wonder what just happened. This novel necessitates in-depth analysis and would be a great read in a university class.
“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.”
Wow the imagery, imagination, and contemplation of this passage is amazing.
We are introduced to Kafka Tamura, a fifteen year old boy playing out the oft-used narrative of a boy running away from home. The novel departs from the trope immediately, as there are not many similarities to a typical freedom-inclined child’s adventure. Kafka is extremely prepared for his escape from home and has prepared physically, mentally, and financially for his journey. The second protagonist is Satoru Nakata, a mentally impaired older gentleman, generally harmless and docile. He is a war casualty who has spent his life in Nakano Ward, a small region within Tokyo and has never crossed the boundaries of this area until he is forced to commit murder. Nakata has a talent for finding lost cats, as he understands and speaks with them.
Despite having a young protagonist, the novel seems to be written for an older audience, rife with adult themes including sex, loss, war, and self-sufficiency. We are presented with two extremely flawed characters, each in their distinct way. Kafka is entranced with an Oedipus-like prophecy, but has never met his mother or sister. His father is a strange man who makes flutes from dead cats. Kafka develops an interesting, quasi-sexual relationship with a transgender librarian, Oshima, and then a love with a fifteen year old ghost of the head librarian, Miss Saeki (who is still alive). Nakata is limited mentally by an event from his childhood as a direct result of war. As a child, his entire class embarked on a field trip into the mountains to hunt for mushrooms, only for all the children to fall unconscious. Nakata was the only child to remain unconscious for a length of time, which in turn stunted his mental development (and gave him the ability to talk to cats?). Did I say this story was confusing?
The two protagonists share similarities in their experiences with Kafka’s father (“Jack Daniels” to Nakata), spaces in a mystical forest, and elements that introduce a dream/etheral world. As the novel progresses, more links can be seen between the two stories and much of the mystery of love, murder, and relationships that seemed muddled in the beginning are clarified. I cannot say that I fully understood everything in the novel, as it was quite a puzzle.
Murakami excels in character development, which we can see as our two protagonists encounter vastly different characters. From the enthused “tough-guy” trucker, Hoshino, with a vulnerability for Nakata, to semi-mystical “Johnnie Walker” who murders and convinces people to murder cats, Murakami demonstrates an ability to create just about any character into his story. He names one semi-hilarious character “Colonel Sanders”, who ends up being a mystical, imaginary pimp who leads Hoshino to a magic stone. I don’t recall any flat or underdeveloped characters, rather they all show some weird quirk or trait that makes them stand out. Most of the characters have some inkling of sexual tension, regardless of blood relation, age, or gender. I can only believe that the topics that Murakami writes about are received with controversy.
I loved Nakata’s simple character, where the surreal world was surprisingly easy for him to comprehend, once he got adjusted. His mental state made it easy to accept some of the odd happenings, which drove other characters mad. His life was simple, before being thrown in to the mess outside Nakano Ward, and revolved around cats. I enjoyed his simple and accepting interpretation on weird events.
I am not a huge fan of translated works, as I usually assume meanings are lost in the translation. However, I do enjoy learning about cultural differences in reading translated texts. There is an obvious mix of western and Japanese cultures. A large chunk of the novel takes place in a library where Oshima and Kafka engage in existential and philosophical debates, which brings many Western classics into the story. Obviously, Kafka’s name (which the character chose to identify) which borders on surreal elements already, lends to surrealism in the novel. The novel places emphasis on high culture in art, music, and literature, which slows down the pace of the novel, but certainly gives critics much to talk about.
Kafka on the Shore’s surrealism and magical realism are two genres which I don’t have much experience reading. This is the second book that I have read from Murakami and I hold by my conclusion that he is a superb writer.
8.5/10 – Not an easy read, by any stretch. Prepare to be confused and rewarded for deciphering the story.