March 2005

Annie Tully

fiction

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Anyone familiar enough with Haruki Murakami's novels will be prepared, in reading one, to be simultaneously puzzled and engrossed. Kafka on the Shore is yet another alluring enigma, its pages filled with talking cats, fish falling from the sky, and a spirit of some kind named Colonel Sanders.

There are many familiar Murakami-isms here, not the least of which is the cast of characters whose lives run parallel (until, we hope and assume, they will intertwine). We're first introduced to our narrator, the stoic Kafka Tamura, who runs away at age fifteen. Kafka's mother left home when he was four, taking his sister and leaving Kafka with a distant father. Kafka makes his way to a small private library in the country where he meets head librarian Miss Saeki, whom he quickly begins to believe is his mother.

Kafka's story alternates with that of an illiterate old man named Nakata. As a child after World War II, Nakata was one of a group of children who mysteriously collapsed in a field while picking mushrooms, and he never fully recovered his mind or his memory. (Always speaking of himself in the third person, he sweetly and frankly tells those he meets “Nakata is not bright.”) Now, he spends his days in the sunny mid-day calm of his Tokyo neighborhood, making small talk with the local cats. A bizarre and macabre encounter with a stranger named Johnny Walker -- Murakami is fond of peppering his allegories with brand names -- ends with Nakata's own cross-country trip, in the same direction that Kafka took.

Murakami has often written about lost souls searching for fulfilment, and that's true here as well. What sets this novel apart is its young protagonist. Kafka narrates in the opening pages: “My fifteenth birthday is the ideal time to run away from home. Any earlier and it'd be too soon. Any later and I would have missed my chance.” A similar statement could be made about Murakami's choice to write from the point of view of a misanthropic runaway who hates his father and misses his long-departed mother. Perhaps it's oversimplifying to call this a story of adolescent angst, but in this, perhaps Murakami's most complex work yet, the fact that adolescence is anything but simple makes Kafka is the ideal narrator.

When we first meet him, Kafka is mature, methodical, strict in his daily routines. But this is merely an attempt to bury his fifteen-year-old confusion. Nakata, with his mental handicap, is the perfect foil. While Nakata is a blank slate without memories -- he hardly distinguishes one day from the next -- Kafka tries his best to be free of the unhappy childhood that torments him. In particular, he is obsessed with the prophesy his father continually made throughout his young life: that Kafka would murder his father, then sleep with his mother and his sister.

Don't think the Oedipal reference is a rare one. While waiting for the parallels between Nakata and Kafka to become clear, Murakami strings together more than enough philosophical, historical, mythological, musical, and literary references, dropping them into his signature, dry narrative like little clues to be highlighted and underlined in the hope of a revelatory conclusion. It's this hope, and our curiosity about the meaning of this intricate enigma of a tale, that he relies on to propel us -- and propel us he does -- through Kafka on the Shore.

Murakami's near-constant name-dropping (Aristophanes, Napoleon, Hegel, Kafka, of course, and Prince are just a few) or his pointed use of symbolism (everything from mushrooms to blood to the color blue keep you looking for meaning) may add up, or may exist simply to keep us turning the pages in the hope that they will. By the time we reach that last page, however, it truly no longer matters. Again, we're left perplexed, engrossed, all in all... haunted. While a truly enjoyable read, it'd difficult to say whether Kafka on the Shore, with all its turns -- false or not -- is either satisfying or unsatisfying. Those words don't apply here. Satisfaction seems to not be Murakami's goal as much as spinning a tale that will keep us guessing and amused. He succeeds from start to finish, and even beyond. Give this one time to sink in even after it's closed -- that's just as much fun as the read itself.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Knopf
ISBN: 1400043662
448 Pages