In everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.
Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it won’t surprise you to learn that I’m a huge fan of Murakami. I’ve already published reviews of two of his other works (Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun), and mentioned others in my end of year wrap-up posts. The book that started my love affair with Murakami was 1Q84, a giant tome that I picked up on a whim. The main reason that I became so engrossed with 1Q84 was that it was so profoundly different from anything else that I had read before that. Murakami’s world was, and is, so wonderfully strange and unique, with its own brand of surreal logic. Yet I also found 1Q84 daunting. There were some symbols that I could never decipher and simply wrote off as intentional illogic meant to convey the sense of a distorted world.
I’d put off reading Kafka for a long time, mostly because I’d heard from friends that it was the most difficult to understand out of Murakami’s novels. Yet, for some reason, I found this book relatively easy to get through, probably thanks to my now extensive experience with Murakami’s style and motifs.
Kafka on the Shore is the tale of fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, who flees his hometown of Tokyo to escape an Oedipal curse and ultimately arrives at a small but distinguished private library run by an intriguing older woman, Miss Saeki. The novel switches back and forth between Kafka’s story and that of Nakata, a simple-minded man in his seventies who has a fondness for eel and ekes out a living by locating lost cats for his neighbors. The novel begins by covering the faux historical background of Nakata’s story, which is tedious at first. However, by the time the story gets rolling, I found the book hard to put down. Translated by Philip Gabriel, the novel is at once easy to read, but sprinkles in enough references to Japanese and Western pop culture to keep you engaged.
Murakami novels are infamous for sharing the same characters and highlighting what appears to be the author’s own interests: music (jazz and classical), books, and cats. In addition to the above, I was delighted to find some classical and literary allusions that I normally don’t associate with Murakami. The obvious one, of course, is the Oedipal curse. To add to this, blood is a constant in this novel, even in scenes that don’t involve murder or injury. There’s a scene early on where a character can’t seem to wash blood off their hands no matter how hard they try, which I interpreted as a clear reference to Lady Macbeth. The idea that Kafka’s curse is a source of pollution reminded me again of Oedipus and other Greek tragedies in that Oedipus is polluted by his curse, and that the pollution spreads to his children and leads them to tragic fates. And lastly, though I don’t think this is as direct a connection, the character of Miss Saeki reminded me of Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations: a woman who’s chosen to live trapped at a point in her life when she was happier.
One thing that I found a little frustrating about the book was its need to incessantly revisit certain ideas, specifically the identities of Kafka’s sister and mother. I personally would have preferred if this was hinted at a bit more subtly, since I felt that this (and some other meaningful moments) were handed to me on a plate. I like to work for answers as a reader, so I was disappointed by the overtness of some of the narrative. Still, I liked the rest of the book enough that it didn’t hinder my enjoyment to an excessive degree.
YES OR NO: YES. Surreal as it may be, the story of this novel is surprisingly easy enough to follow. That being said, there are still so many questions and thoughts I have about the book that I’m sure I’ll never be able to figure out (what’s the significance of the leeches?). Also, remember to be patient at the beginning! It gets off to a slow start, but the story soon picks up.