Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

27 August, 2009

Kafka on the Shore

I always fret long and hard when writing Japanese names: do I do it the Japanese way with the surname first or the English way (i.e. Murakami Haruki or Haruki Murakami)? In my first post about Japanese authors I did it the Japanese way but as I blogged on I’ve switched back to the English. What to do? I guess my western education has come through and won. So, I think I’ll just go with the flow. If in my mind I’m thinking in Japanese, then the Japanese way it is. If not, tough. So if you do get annoyed, I apologise in advance.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the serious stuff. I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore last night. It took me about a week or so which is quite a long time for me to finish a book, but then I wasn’t reading every hour of the day. I got snatches in on my commute and before going to bed.

Kafka on the Shore. What can I say? It was pure Murakami. It had mystery, whimsy, darkness and a lot of soul searching. There were some choice of words in the translation that jarred, but overall it was easy to get into and kept me hooked. And a significant part of the book was about books and set in a library. What’s not to like?

The novel begins with an inexplicable happening during WWII in the mountains of Shikoko, one of the southern islands of Japan. A group of children collapse on an outing leaving one boy in a coma. They do not remember anything and the doctor and teacher are forbidden by the military to speak of the incident.

We then come to the present day where fifteen year old Kafka Tamura and his mysterious friend Crow have run away from his father in Tokyo. He has been cursed since birth, his father claiming that Kafka will kill him and sleep with his mother and sister. So naturally, Kafka wants to defy him and break free from his Sophoclean fate. But Kafka’s mother and sister disappeared when he was four. This complicates things because Kafka seeks them in every female he meets, but due to his youth and hormones cannot escape from sexually fantasising about them. Kafka ends up in Takamatsu in Shikoku and is befriended by first Sakura, a hairdresser, and then Oshima, a long-haired boy who works in the Komura Memorial Library, a private library which becomes a refuge for Kafka. Here he meets beautiful Ms. Saeki who still carries a torch for her long-dead lover.

Elsewhere in the novel, we follow Nakata, who is unable to remember anything since the incident during the war and cannot read or write. But he can talk to cats. While looking for a missing cat, Nakata is led to a sinister being, one Johnnie Walker who collects the souls of cats, who persuades him to commit murder. Nakata goes on the run and is helped by Chunichi Dragons fan Hoshino, a once-delinquent truck driver.

Murakami cleverly entwines the two strands of the novel, keeping the reader guessing until the end. The characters in his novel are charming, troubled, naive yet strong. They are trying to figure out their destiny, and although they do not go through life in the easiest way, we are glad to follow in their footsteps.

Kafka on the Shore is very different to a lot of novels currently out there. Although Murakami doesn’t provide a definitive answer he does provide some sort of closure in Kafka’s story. As in After Dark, Murakami’s novel is peopled by the displaced. Alienation is a theme that runs through this novel, yet we also encounter people who are willing to stretch out a hand and help. Murakami leaves you pondering about the nature of life and people and that’s always a good thing.

15 Responses to “Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami”

  1. Bellezza Says:

    Kafka on The Shore is the first Murakami I ever read, if you don’tn count trying Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and laying it down because I didn’t “get” his style. Once I abandoned my understanding, and went with Murakami’s, I fell in love. To me, Kafka on The Shore speaks of relationships: between Kafka’s father (whom I believe to be Johnny Walker, an alcoholic), his mother and sister, but also Nakata’s…don’t you feel that his teacher caused him to become “unwell” by slapping him on the hill? Maybe that’s my personal take, as I’ve been a teacher for 25 years and realize the impact you have on children. I could read this book a thousand times and still get something new out of it. My favorite relationship of all was Nakata and Hoshina.

    • chasingbawa Says:

      Hi Bellezza! I totally agree with you (especially about Johnnie Walker and Nakata when he was young). You come away from reading Kafka on the Shore thinking about the ties that bind people to each other. And yes, my favourite relationship was Nakata and Hoshino too. It was so poignant. I like the way Murakami doesn’t spell everything out for you. As you keep reading you uncover the layers one by one.

  2. Mel Says:

    Thank you for your very interesting post. How can one not like a book about a man that talks to cats?

  3. Bellezza Says:

    and there are so many layers to uncover!

    I read an interview with Murakami who said that Nakata was his favorite character as well. I wonder if the two resemble one another…

  4. Scott Says:

    Good ol’ Nakata. I craved eel for about 3 weeks after reading this book.

  5. Tony Says:

    As you would know if you read my blog, I am a big Murakami fan! This is a great read, but (as I’ve been telling everyone, it seems, recently) ‘Norwegian Wood’ is even better 😉

  6. chasingbawa Says:

    Thank you for reading my post!

    Mel: I agree, Murakami portrays Nakata in such a sympathetic but strong way. It seems so normal that he can talk to cats.

    Scott: Me too. I love unagi!

    Tony: Fantastic blog. Norwegian Wood is also one of my favourites.

  7. Parrish Says:

    This was my first murakami, the one that set me on my obsessive path, so it has a place reserved for it in my heart, loved wind up bird etc, read what I talk about & Underground which amazed, shocked & made me understand what a fantastic writer he truly is, even when compiling a book of interviews, it was a Murakami. H. book.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I haven’t read Underground yet, but I’ve heard many good things about it. I think Murakami’s also published a book about the Kobe earthquake, although I’m not sure whether that’s out in English. I really want to read his new book, 1Q84, but it’s not available here yet.

  8. Yes he did it’s called After the Quake, a collection of short stories which were written in response to Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Of course, I can’t believe I forgot the title! I haven’t read that yet, but will soon.

      • Tony Says:

        I reread ‘after the quake’ earlier this year (although my review was a little… unorthodox). It’s a lovely set of six stories, but they’re over in no time at all (about 130 pages with really big print and lots of white space!).

        I moved to Japan in 1999 and lived fairly close to Kobe. Looking up from the coast to the mountains, you could see how the energy was funnelled up the main roads before rebounding back off the mountains. There are still some areas left ruined near the harbour as a memorial.

        • chasing bawa Says:

          I have a couple of Japanese friends from that area and some of the stories I heard about the earthquake were harrowing. So many people’s lives were fractured and some still haven’t recovered from the trauma. Saying that, my friend’s niece was born that night during the quake so some good came out. You know what, I think I need to read this very soon.

  9. pkg Says:

    There is no doubt that the book has multiple layers that open up slowly as the story progresses but somehow I felt that he should have provided a better closure. But maybe the fact that he leaves us guessing is the beauty that I am missing

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I don’t really think Murakami does closure. But that’s part of why I like him, I guess. There is something a little bit whimsical and open-ended about his stories.

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