Let’s see if I can make sense when rambling on about a book that doesn’t make complete sense (to me).
Back in June 2017, Murakami’s Norwegian Wood provided the perfect escapism in a time where I wasn’t in the best place mood-wise. The style of his prose is tender and nostalgic by him giving more attention to certain details and bringing it up repetitively to adhere the mood to my mind, like a catchy pop song lyric. That, in turn, allowed me to get a more vivid picture of college life in Japan in the 60s. The way he wrote the main character in the first person put me in the shoes of that character as he went through a novel-length flashback, and that made me connect more with his character and the emotions he felt. It’s one of the most emotionally compelling novels I have ever read (albeit, I don’t read a lot).
And in Kafka in the Shore, Murakami employs the same techniques in his prose… but there’s so much more. He uses dual perspectives, integrates philosophical ideas into the narrative and turns magical realism up to eleven. It’s a real mess but in a good way. I felt the novel needed some trimming down, especially those police case files where they set it up like it was going to be a mystery story with a conclusion and that, wasn’t the case. One could argue that the point of the case files is to show how it’s been impossible for the detectives to solve the mystery but the same point could have been conveyed with just a couple of concise chapters. There were patches here and where the pacing was intentionally stretched thin for a surreal effect, but I didn’t mind them since I was already pretty invested in the narrative.
Speaking of narrative, if you want a meaty, cohesive story – then I wouldn’t give you a strong recommendation on this one. People (especially Kafka) cycle through locations a lot, some of the motifs resurface more than I expected, Murakami doesn’t hesitate to take deep dives into the character’s thoughts and mood.
Here’s a synopsis of the story: Fifteen-year-old who goes by the name Kafka Tamura runs away from his home and, in turn, attempts to escape from his father’s prophecy. His prophecy that Kafka will murder him and rape his mother and sister. But Kafka intends to be “the world’s toughest 15-year-old” and fight against fate. A futile one at that. Meanwhile, an old man Nakata who can talk to cats meets Johnny Walker who makes him go on a long journey to tie loose ends and untie new ones at the same time.
Crow, assumably an alter ego of Kafka (it’s not clarified) drapes a nice metaphor around fate – which seems to be the central theme of the book – at the beginning: a sandstorm. Here’s an excerpt:
Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing direction. 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 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…
His words just pour out so well, doesn’t it? Sure, it can be trimmed but I think the indulgent, escapist effect would be lost.
Alright, I’ll be spoiling some stuff in the next paragraphs as I discuss some specifics of the narrative, skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Among Murakami’s tendency to reference as many relevant art pieces as possible throughout the narrative (from Beethoven’s music to Truffaut films to Hegel’s philosophy), he integrates many elements of a typical Kafka story – and I’m saying this rather loosely because I have only read a couple of his short stories (The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony) – where people are just put in unfortunate situations without rhyme or reason, and the main character can only do what things around them propel them to do. Nakata is the best example of this – he woke up one day after what’s thought to be a mass hypnosis incident and something switched off in him, he suddenly became dumb and could talk to cats. Later on in the novel, he goes on a journey without any purpose and he just gets new information injected into his mind out of nowhere as he arrives at certain checkpoints. Things just happen, and the character in focus can’t do much about it.
There’s also another great motif of “responsibility beginning in dreams” (which borrows from a book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann – again, Murakami with his references) where Crow talks about how people can suppress tabooed imagination but that gets expressed in dreams. And that hints towards how Kafka ends up ‘raping’ his sister in a dream – fulfilling the prophecy. That scene isn’t really that graphic but the way Crow talks in second person voice really unsettled me.
That brings me to the point that almost every important thing that happens in the second half of the novel is a bunch of metaphysical (or just) metaphors. The girl (Sakura) Kafka meets in his journey to Takamatsu ends up being somewhat of a metaphorical surrogate of his sister who left him with his father ages ago along with her mother. And Saeki turns out to be his metaphorical mother and his metaphorical lover because of Saeki’s weird nostalgic delusions. Yes, even our titular protagonist himself becomes a metaphorical reincarnation of Saeki’s past lover. It’s a metaphorical mess.
The sex scenes are, as I said, uncomfortable in the latter half of the book. They are still tender and emotional, but contextually they feel wrong and Kafka is aware of this but he can’t do anything about it. I don’t know where I was going with this paragraph but I’ll leave it here.
My favorite parts of the novel are the forest scene and Kafka’s metaphysical self-discovery interactions with his surroundings. I also loved the atmospheric descriptions, it feeds perfectly into the indulgent, escapist mood the book sets up so well.
In conclusion, the story of Kafka on the Shore neither particularly moved me nor did it change my life, but it was more than a decent read. Even though it’s around 500 pages, it was a pretty fast book to burn through, I never really got bored – there were some really slow Hoshino chapters but overall it was engaging despite the novel having a slow-burn type of plot. I would recommend you to read this if you read a Haruki Murakami book before, or if you just want a book to entertain you with a relatively well-patched together metaphysical, metaphorical storyline that’s (roughly) thematically cohesive and doesn’t completely derail from comprehension… I get the feeling I’m not selling this book well – hey it’s good, okay?
Thanks for going through this unfocused rambling. I’m pretty sure half of the ‘metaphors’ I talked about in this post aren’t actually metaphors – but I’m rolling with it anyway… metaphorically.