Kafka on the Shore

by Haruki Murakami

Published by Knopf

448 pages, 2005

Buy it online




Familiar and Alien

Reviewed by Summer Block


In Kafka on the Shore, the latest mind-bending novel by Japanese sensation Haruki Murakami, we are again treated to a series of events too fantastical to bear retelling, set in a world at once familiar and alien -- an eerie fairy-tale environment where the most banal interchanges are clouded over with familial tensions and unspoken longings.

Kafka Tamura is a 15-year-old boy who runs away from home to escape an Oedipal curse: he will murder his father, a famed sculptor with whom he lives alone, and sleep with both his sister and his mother, who abandoned him as a small boy. He runs off to a city where no one will know him and finds work and shelter at a library under the watchful tutelage of a hermaphroditic librarian, Oshima, and his mysterious and elegant employer, Miss Saeki, a middle-aged woman that may be Kafka's mother, and who lives in mourning following the death of her lover years before. No sooner does Kafka leave than his father is found murdered, and Kafka wakes up in a city miles away, covered in blood. Meanwhile he meets a girl who may be his sister, and after a brief sexual interchange, rapes her in a dream. To complete the prediction, he embarks on an affair with Miss Saeki -- first, with the ghost of her 15-year-old self, then with the middle-aged woman she is in the present day.

In a second storyline that alternates chapter by chapter with Kafka's adventures, an elderly man named Nakata flees to the same city after murdering a mysterious character who calls himself Johnny Walker (after the man on the whiskey bottle) and may in fact be Kafka's father. Nakata, who suffered an unexplained illness following a childhood UFO sighting, is now unable to read or write, but has the ability to talk to cats and to cause bizarre phenomena like fish and leeches to rain from the sky. He kills Johnny Walker to defend the neighborhood cats Walker is murdering in order to build a flute that steals souls. Nakata befriends the trucker Hoshino, and together they carry out a mission Nakata is psychically compelled to complete -- they must find the entrance stone that separates this world from the spirit world and thereby allow Kafka and Miss Saeki to find resolution.

This sort of fast and loose metaphysics can get tiring -- in one particularly exhausting sequence, an amoral pimp appears in the form of Colonel Sanders to explain that every object is in flux.

Earth, time, concepts, love, life, faith, justice, evil: they're all fluid and in transition. They don't stay in one form or one place forever. The whole universe is like some big FedEx box.

All this combined with a liberal sprinkling of the intellectual heavyweights --Sophocles, Plato, Hegel, Kafka -- seemingly added to lend Murakami's far out imaginings a mantle of respectability.

Despite the Oedipal background, Kafka's story is as much fairy tale as myth. Kafka is a teenager, a highly charged time of life, uniquely open to erotic and supernatural possibilities. He runs away to escape a wicked parent and finds himself in a place of mystery, comes under the protection of a wise guardian, and falls in love with a lonely and isolated beauty. Nakata's story, by contrast, is much more spiritual -- he is the holy fool, a simpleton who possesses otherworldly wisdom and a quiet, stoical dignity.

But if Nakata is a spiritual guide, what exactly is he guiding us through? What sort of world is Murakami imagining? In John Updike's essay on this book for the New Yorker magazine, he compares Murakami's creation to the abundant and disordered spiritual world of Shinto, which stands in sharp contrast to the more mannered and highly structured monotheistic religions. Clearly, Murakami is presenting a very polytheistic worldview: not a single, ordered hierarchy of meanings, but a riotous, cross-pollinating sacred system. Yet his characters long for calm and emptiness. Nakata sits in a meditative trance while waiting for Johnny Walker and contemplates an interior world where everything is there, but there are no parts.

Since there are no parts, there's no need to replace one thing with another. No need to remove anything, or add anything. You don't have to think about difficult things, just soak it all in.

This annihilation of differences owes more to Taoism and Buddhism than Shinto. Oshima tells Kafka: "Until Edison invented the electric light, most of the world was totally covered in darkness. The physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two." Kafka on the Shore revolves around a series of contrasts: order vs. chaos, interior vs. exterior, real vs. imagined. But as these already porous boundaries begin to break down, Kafka attempts to find a unified whole, a solid, irreducible meaning from all the parts.

The morality of the story is equally disarming and difficult to categorize. Intentionality here is the key: a crime done in a dream carries the same weight as one carried out in real life. Yet Murakami himself is oddly distanced and amoral, as is his protagonist. After committing a rape and a murder, Kafka continues his bildungsroman rather blithely. These acts were a rite of passage, and their effects on the victims are secondary to their symbolic meaning.

It would be accurate, if simplistic, to categorize Murakami's work as a sort of psychological mystery, a metaphorical version of the Raymond Chandler stories Murakami has translated. Decoding the works becomes much like dream analysis: the work of collecting and interpreting a sea of interconnected symbols. However, without equally careful characterization, these symbolic networks can become vague. Psychoanalysts are quick to say that dreams carry specific as well as universal meanings. To understand what a jug of water means to me in a dream, you have to know something about me and my history. Kafka, Miss Saeki and the other characters seem somehow flat and archetypal in a way that precludes an individualized understanding of their characters, the result is that the symbols can become stereotyped or confusing.

Despite Murakami's fertile imagination and enthusiastic plotting, there remains something flat and listless about his prose. It's hard to say how much is Murakami's own style and how much the fault of a clunky translation. There is something two-dimensional about his characters, and their dialogue sounds stilted. An enthusiastic lover of jazz, Murakami has an improvisational style that sometimes sacrifices clarity for elegance, but his more high-flown rhetorical moments are usually paired with keenly observed domestic detail. Or, as in his outstanding novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, rooted in history. Unmoored here from counterbalancing realism, Murakami's newest novel founders in metaphysical flourishes that fail to connect to the reader. I prefer the novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and the short story collections After the Quake and The Elephant Vanishes, where a taste for the outrageous is mellowed by more sober reflections on the disaffection of modern Japan in its social isolation and aimless consumerism. | July 2005


Summer Block is a regular contributor to several newspapers and journals, including The San Francisco Chronicle and Rain Taxi. Her work can be found at summerblock.com.