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.

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I started reading Kafka on the Shore last week for the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 and I’m enjoying it very much. I’m taking it slowly as I want to savour and think about it as I go along. Also, there is a character in the novel with the same name as mine! Yay, bonus! While I was at my sister’s this weekend, I caught sight of After Dark on her bookshelf, and as it was quite a slim volume, I took it down and couldn’t resist taking a peek. I normally go to sleep with a couple of books by my pillow (kind of like a security blanket – I always feel safe when I’m surrounded by books) and before I knew it, I had started reading it. And I finished it the following morning. I did say it was a slim volume.

After Dark isn’t as whimsical as some of Murakami’s other novels. If I had to compare it, it is more in the vein of Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun rather than A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance. The novel follows one night in the life of Mari Asai, a nineteen year old university student studying Chinese and running away from her cracked home life. She has a beautiful older sister Eri who is deep in a coma-like sleep watched over by a mysterious man. Mari has missed her last train home and is killing time reading a book in a family restaurant. There, she encounters Takahashi, a one-time classmate of her sister’s. He is on his way to an all night band practice. From there, events take a strange turn as Takahashi’s friend Kaoru, a former pro-wrestler and now manager of a love hotel asks for her help. She has a beaten up Chinese prostitute crying in the love hotel and needs Mari’s interpreting skills. Mari is drawn into the shadowy underbelly of Japanese nightlife as she meets characters who do not normally exist in her conventional suburban life.

Nothing much happens as this novel only covers about seven hours or so in Mari’s life. But we get a snapshot of the lonely hours between the last and first trains that leave Tokyo into the suburbs. The 24 hour family restaurants, convenience stores and love hotels as well as the night shift of IT workers all make an appearance when most ordinary folk are fast asleep in their beds. In contrast, Mari’s sister Eri who is fast asleep at home is stuck in an uneasy place between life and death. We hear stories about the various displaced characters who are all running away from something in their lives. Like in all of his novels, there is a thread of alienation running through After Dark. And although Murakami doesn’t try and explain or give an answer to life’s problems, the novel left me not with a sad, depressed sense of futility, but a snapshot of modern life in Japan. It’s not a happy novel, but he leaves us with a small nugget of hope in the myriad problems faced by ordinary people.

A lot of focus has been given in the past few years to the dark, visceral nature of Japan and the East, not mainly due to the violence and sex prevalent in films, novels and manga that is increasingly available in the West. Like in any country, there is a light and dark side to Japan. I feel it mistaken to think that you can define a country just by a selection of artistic work. Having lived in Japan, I feel that the traditional and modern, culture and vice all complement each other and build a fuller picture of such a complex nation.

After Dark isn’t my favourite Murakami novel, but I liked it. There isn’t a definitive conclusion to the story, but you come away from reading it with a little more understanding of Japanese society.

So having spent the last week nursing ever multiplying monster headaches (tension-type headaches including a side-effect of nausea and upset tummy) brought on by having to think about viewing flats and sorting out my mortgage (yes, I know I have to grow up one day but please, not just yet!) I have decided to treat myself to an eyelash perm. Well, technically both eyelashes as I don’t want to look like a one-eyed doll wonder. And I’m impressed with the result. And it was painless too. Here’s a short clip if you want to know how it’s done:

The eyelash perm has been popular in Japan for over ten years to brighten up and enlarge Japanese eyes, and I had been dying to get one ever since, but sadly I didn’t have enough time when I popped over there this year for a friend’s wedding. I know, I sound like a real jet-setter, swanning off to Sri Lanka, then Japan, then Munich a few weeks back….but seriously, my bank balance is suffering as a result because there were sooo many nice things I just had to get in Japan. My advice: if you are going to Japan, start saving up months in advance because you will definitely want everything you see in the select shops that line the streets of Tokyo. And not just things, you will want sweets from the convenience stores and things from Muji. Muji in Japan is different from the UK because they sell food. It might be ready-made but it’s yummy. It is a shopper’s hell/paradise depending on how much spare cash you have. And I haven’t even started on Matsukiyo (short for Matsumoto Kiyoshi, an equivalent to Boots in the UK, but sooo much better – it’s a chemist/beauty store in which you can spend hours). Everytime I go to Japan, I spend half my time there. I. love. Matsukiyo.

OK, enough of sounding like a crazy person. Let’s get down to some book business. I’ve started reading Kafka on the Shore and although I’ve only read a few pages, it has a more sinister feel than some of Murakami’s other novels. I really loved Norwegian Wood and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and more recently I found his non-fiction semi-autobiography What I Talk About When I Talk About Running both educational and enlightening. Especially since I was trying to get some tips on running a 5km charity run for Cancer Research at the time. And as all my friends know, I’m no runner. I was severely traumatised when I was a child having to run 3km in the mountains of Japan as part of my PE class and getting a very bad mark for it. But Murakami makes running something more than just a bit of exercise, it is a profound experience and an eternal struggle with yourself (although I have a sneaky suspicion that he is a bit of a masochist…the man runs a marathon every year!) And he ties it in with his writing. For that, I am eternally grateful. And I have changed my mind about running too.

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Japanese Literary Challenge 3

I was going through my blog list during a particularly dry patch at work a few days ago and happened upon the Japanese Literary Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Two words to instantly grab my attention: Japanese and literary, and although I’m not an aggressive go-getter who’s always out to win, I occasionally like a challenge, and I’m definitely up for some midnight oil burning-type reading. This is Bellezza’s third year hosting this challenge and she has a nice long list of book suggestions. I am familiar with most of the titles from my stint working at a Japanese bookshop during my student days, but I thought I’d try a couple of books that weren’t on the list.

So, the challenge calls for one work of Japanese origin to be read between July 30, 2009 and January 30, 2010. No problemo! I’m going to finally start reading Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore which has been languishing in my TBR bookcase behind a number of other books and also give Tanizaki Junichiro’s Naomi another go. I tried to read the latter several years back but wasn’t in the right frame of mind so only got past the first few pages. Sartre and Beauvoir were great fans of Tanizaki’s whose books provoked outrage due to their morally ambiguious content.

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I am also currently reading and watching Bleach by Kubo Tite but it’s a long-running manga and anime series and who knows when the end will be in sight. The manga, about Japanese soul reapers, is so good I don’t actually want it to ever end. But I will write about Bleach another day as it deserves its very own post.

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