EPS Review #101 - Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, Harvill Press, 2005, 505pp.

This makes the fourth Murakami book that I have reviewed. The previous three -- #4 Norwegian Wood; #21 Underground; #62 After the Quake -- were not in his usual surreal novel style. I forget why I did not review The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, though I thought that was very good, one of his best.

"Kafka" is back in the surreal groove, with appearances by Johnnie Walker, Colonel Sanders, and talking cats. As usual, the story uses puzzlement as its motive force. Kafka Tamura runs away from home (Nakano-ku, where I used to live) to Shikoku (where we vacationed last year...spooky!). Nakata loses his memories in a weird incident during the war, yet can talk to cats. Miss Saeki may be Kafka's runaway mother; Johnny Walker is eating live cat hearts to make a flute to catch human souls; there is an explicit Oedipal theme, with added sororal dream-intercourse. What is going on? At moments it seems like Murakami will tie it all up too neatly: Miss Saeki caused some sort of time-warp with her longing for her murdered lover, and various forces are setting the world back in equilibrium via the use of a sort of limbo. Luckily it never quite makes that much sense, but is fun to read as it goes along.

There are a few differences to the usual Murakami novel. Kafka is a 15-year-old boy instead of the typical middle-aged bar-owner, though one of these makes an appearance. At his bar a truck-driver learns to love classical music, in particular the Archduke Trio as performed by Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Feuermann. At other points we read about particular recordings of Schubert's D-major sonata and Haydn's first cello concerto. In fact, Kafka holes up at a special library, and we are treated to lots of philosophical musings, often with neat summaries. It could all be so annoying, but instead is refreshing to have blatant intellectual talk, at least with Murakami's light touch.

The translation is lively, with phrases like "Jeez Louise" and "spare me your Gifu-prefecture, country-bumpkin morality".

What does it all add up to? It is not clear. Some of the tenderness reminded me of my favorite: Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World. The feelings of evil are less strong than in "Wind-Up Bird". Just relish the mystery, I suppose. The rains of fish and leeches remind me that Ross has been reading his thrift-store copy of Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World, and pops with up stories about frogs being found alive inside lumps of flint. I suppose Kafka grows up at the end of the story, but frankly he seems pretty grown-up to begin with.

John Updike wrote an interesting review of "Kafka" in the New Yorker. He notes the lack of religious "polarity" in all the metaphors, and attributes it to Shinto.

(If you do go to Takamatsu station in Shikoku, try the strawberry and creme-filled rice cakes. It is like eating a shortcake inside a balloon. I had to have P feed them to me as I cannot stand the feel of the powdered cornstarch on the fleshy rice paste. Taste great, though).