Review of Kafka on the Shore
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 12/16/07
This is the first time I’ve ever read a novel by Haruki Murakami. I’d read a collection of his short stories called After the Quake a while back and found them to be good. So I wanted to try one of his longer works. Overall, I have to say that this is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. He delves into both the real and surreal, the dream and waking—that you are not sure which world you are in. Maybe both at once. In this book, fish fall from the sky, cats talk, people commit murder and then are unsure if they committed it, as well as engaging in incest (or are they?) Characters know their motives, yet question them and are also unsure if anything is even happening at all. So having said that, it is near impossible to provide an adequate plot summary with so few words, since so much happens in the book.
The story centers around a 15-year old boy named Kafka Tamura who runs away from home to search for his mother and sister. Along the way, Kafka is listening and getting advice from an individual called “the boy named Crow” (“Crow” happens to mean “Kafka” in Czech—the book claims). At the same time, there is an old man named Nakata who possesses the ability to talk to cats. The chapters alternate between the young boy and the old man, both whose lives overlap. Kafka meets up with a librarian named Oshima who borders between genders. He also meets up with a young girl he imagines is his sister and an older woman he imagines is his mother. He engages in sexual activity with both, albeit we never know if it is really happening, or if this is just a dream, or if these really are his family members at all. Much in the same way Kafka the novelist invites the idea of dream in a work like The Metamorphosis, in Kafka on the Shore, readers will be left with ambiguity.
Murakami drops bits of insight throughout his dialogue, such as when Oshima, the half-gender person tells Kafka, “People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex being a great example. Oedipus is drawn into tragedy not because of laziness or stupidity, but because of his courage and honesty. So an inevitable irony results.” This, of course, is later shown when Kafka engages in sex with Miss Saeki, a woman he believes might be his mother.
As the narrative progresses, Nakata meets a man named Johnnie Walker, who collects cats’ souls so he can make a ‘special flute’. Nakata witnesses Walker cutting the cats open and eating their hearts out raw. In a moment of rage, Nakata kills Walker and then leaves town. Likewise, Kafka, whose story is running along side Nakata’s, believes he might have killed his father. Unsure, the young boy does a lot of wondering, as well as reading in the library so he can fill his mind with ideas and things to add to his memory. Reading book after book, he notices a painting on the wall called Kafka on the Shore with the image of a 15-year old girl that Kafka believes is his mother. In the end, the woman he believes to be his mother gives him the painting, telling him that he was the one in it—that ultimately it is his memory of that moment that she is giving him.
The book alludes to many metaphors as these, and many are nicely done. Images represent one thing, and then turn out to represent another. This book is not your traditional plot-driven ‘fluff’ novel, for reading it requires a great deal of attention. Having said that, the book succeeds on many levels, and there are many brilliant moments throughout. Touching upon memory and forgetting, the past and present, and the waking dream makes this read more of an experience than a mere story alone.
Some reviewers have complained that the book is a recycle of previous Murakami themes, and despite this being my first novel of his I’ve read, I found this introduction rewarding. Yes, there are times when the book can get a little silly, such as when Colonel Sanders from KFC makes a debut, or at times it delves into melodrama. Here is a scene where Kafka visits his ‘mother’ in a dream (or is it) and she stabs her arm for him to drink the blood:
I bend over and put my lips on the small wound, lick her blood with my tongue, close my eyes, and savor the taste. I hold the blood in my mouth and slowly swallow it. Her blood goes down, deep in my throat. It’s quietly absorbed by the dry outer layer of my heart. Only now do I understand how much I’ve wanted that blood.”
The scene, despite being dealt with in a matter of fact style as far as the writing goes, can get a bit heavy handed at times. It is easy for one to become lost in the metaphor if not paying attention, for there are so many details going on that make this the rich work that it is. And I’ve only touched upon a few of them.
Kafka on the Shore is not a perfect book, for it could have used a bit of trimming, (finishing at 467 pages) but the style and structure of the narrative is such that it pushes boundaries and takes risks. The best parts of the book are, in fact, when the characters are delving into philosophical and metaphysical musings, such as freedom, memory, and dream, and how do these play a part in our living? Kafka admits he does not know “what it means to live” and Murakami doesn’t have any straight answers for him.
I think what keeps this from being a ‘great’ book is the fact that there are so many allusions and memories and dreams going on, that they can get a bit repetitive and begin to blend into one another. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, but as a reader, one can get saturated at times. There are also some moments of superfluous detail that could have been trimmed. While I compared Murakami to Kundera, I didn’t find this work to be as strong as Kundera’s two major works: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and also The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The only reason for that, I found, were that the Kundera books had less fat in them, and more concision. This only allowed the dream-like metaphors to resonate more. Yet despite that, Kafka on the Shore is a rewarding read, and a fun one for those who like to ‘think outside the box’ and pick apart what’s happening—dream or not. It deserves your readership, and also piqued my interest to read more of his works in the future.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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