Let’s take this path… ah, but to where?

Song of the Day: ‘Settle Down’ by Kimbra

kafkaontheshoreI have been meaning to share my thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore for quite some time now. But having read the book a few years ago, I did not want to write a review based on loosely remembered memories and thoughts on it. So, I duly read the novel once again and so much for the better too. I may have just understood it better now than I did then.

Anyhow, the path taken by Kafka on the Shore is obscured by weeds, and at times one might be well tempted to give up on this unsatisfactory route but Murakami’s undoubted story-telling ability and his cast of quirky, unlikely characters manage to hold his readers’ attention even through the weediest patches though they may be many and rank.

The Kafka of the title is not Franz Kafka that long-dead German author, nor despite weighty hints in that direction, does he bear any convincing relation to that writer. He is, rather, Kafka Tamura, our teenage protagonist who has run away from home to escape the maligning influence of his father who has laid an oedipal curse upon him: he will kill his father and sleep with his mother, and, for good measure, his sister too. Abandoned young by his mother, who left home with his older sister, Kafka’s journey becomes, in part, a quest to find the rest of his family, and it seems to fulfil his father’s curse: whenever he meets a woman of an age to be either his mother or his sister he tries to sleep with her.

Kafka’s story is told in alternating chapters with that of Mr. Nakata, an old man who has been a bit ‘simple’ since a mysterious childhood accident which deprived him of the ability to read and write and gave him the ability to speak with cats. Their stories are rather beautifully united by images which resonate from one strand of narrative to the other. Images of light, wind, mushrooms, door open and closed, dogs, cats, and fish are all elements which play into the patterns of both stories: the reflection of these images from Nakata to Kafka and back again, is at times, handled with the kind of subtlety that has earned Murakami his formidable reputation as one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary surrealist writers.

Murakami had once told us via the narrator of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle that ‘The best way to think about reality is to get as far away from it as possible.’ (This is just before he decides to cope with the disappearance of his wife by sitting at the bottom of a dry well for hours at a time.) You could call this Murakami’s own method, except in his fiction, the unreal elements are handled so matter-of-factly that they could be called ‘far away’ from the realistic ones; the two co-exist seamlessly. Nakata may talk to cats, yes, but their conversations always begin with polite chitchat about the weather.

As the book progresses, however, the reader learns to treasure these moments of grace, aware that at any moment he may be confronted with paragraphs or even pages where the prose crashes along with the subtlety and poise of a wounded hippo. The two problems that detract from the book’s impact as a whole are its deeply unsatisfactory ending, and the pretentious posturing we must endure on the way. This may seem an unduly harsh assessment of a journey rich in the inventive fantasy and peopled by, among others, Jack Daniels, Colonel Sanders, and an engaging cast of talking cats. Fish and leeches rain from the sky; time displays flexibility that allows the past to seep vividly into the present; ghosts return to haunt and seduce. But Murakami is not content to simply write a good story and manages to spoil the one he has by weighing it down with it down with a burden of meaningfulness and metaphysicality (word?) that it simply cannot sustain. We are told not just once, but repeatedly, ‘It’s as Goethe said: everything is a metaphor.’ (Bringing Goethe into the matter so gratuitously is another issue.)

Early on, we are warned that we are about to experience a ‘violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm.’ And we do. The relentless obsession with symbols is shared by all three main characters in the novel: Kafka himself; Oshima, the transgender, transvestite, homosexual, haemophiliac librarian who acts as his friend and mentor; and Miss Saeki, the beautiful, mysterious director of the library who can’t escape her past. Indeed, the voices of Kafka, Oshima and Miss Saeki become virtually indistinguishable in their tedious fascination with their own profundity.

The title’s use of ‘Kafka’ to engage an audience who might otherwise not have reached for this book is a shrewd marketing ploy, given the recent success of The Da Vinci Code, The Dante Club, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and The Jane Austen Book Club. So, we’ve got Kafka, Goethe gets a mention, as do Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Chekhov, Aristotle… the list goes on through the canons of both western and Japanese literature. The name-checking is relentless but somehow appropriate to the library trip in their metaphorical musings. However, the effect of transferring this tediously referential style of writing from the library to, for example, the life of the rough-and-ready Hoshino is not a happy one: the leaden insertion of passages of philosophy and musicology into his story are a painfully obvious, vain attempt to insinuate a degree of intellectual depth by the most superficial means. Hoshino’s changing perspective on the world is improbably accelerated by a series of instructive encounters which hasten the awakening of his cultural sensitivities. The first of these transformative moments occurs during a visit to a prostitute who pauses for breath (between other activities) to share a few thoughts on Henri Bergson and to deliver a short lecture on Hegelian philosophy. Later, a coffee shop owner needs no persuasion at all to launch into a dissertation on the subject of the life and work of Beethoven and Haydn. The expansion of Hoshino’s world-view is completed when he chances upon a Francois Truffaut retrospective at the cinema which leads him to ponder his purpose in life as he finds himself  appreciating ‘how suggestively the characters’ inner worlds were portrayed.’ Such delicacy is a far cry from Murakami’s blunt signposting. ‘Jeez Louise!’ as Hoshino himself exclaims.

Clichés, ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function – these sound like gambits of ‘postmodernism’ (for lack of a better term), tricks meant to distance the reader from the artificiality of narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labelled ‘cerebral’. But Kafka on the Shore, like all Murakami’s fiction does not feel distant or artificial. He is a magician who explains what he is doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe that he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of his imagination, and his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling that all this junk is made genuine. Johnnie Walker becomes frightening and Colonel Sanders, a loveable if irascible incarnation of, say the god Hermes.

The weird stately urgency of Murakami’s novels comes from the preoccupation with internal problems. You can imagine each as a drama acted out within a single psyche. In each, a self lies in pieces and must be put back together; a life that is stalled must be kick-started and re-launched into the bruising but necessary process of change. Reconciling us to that necessity is something stories have done for humanity since time immemorial. Dreams do it too. But whilst anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it is the rare artist, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.

I am wondering right about now, if any of what I have written here makes any sense to anyone else. This book obviously sat in my review queue for quite some time, years actually getting actively ignored in favour of books that are easier for me to talk about. Obviously I really enjoyed the book, but it is one of those books that are hard to articulate exactly why I found it so enjoyable, considering too that I criticise it as well in this same review. Whatever it may be, and possibly quite different for each of us, it is an enjoyable novel.

My review-writing skills aside, I would advise any and all to give it a shot. All 575 pages of it.

Till Next Post!

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