Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Friday, October 21, 2011


Kafka on the Shore
"Closing your eyes isn't going to change anything. Nothing's going to disappear just because you can't see what's going on. In fact, things will be even worse the next time you open your eyes. That's the kind of world we live in, Mr. Nakata. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won't make time stand still."


Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore primarily follows fifteen-year old solitary Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home because he can no longer stand the presence of his malevolent father. His father had prophesied that Kafka would fulfill the Oedipal curse - that he would murder his father, and sleep with his mother and sister. His mother had run away with his sister when he was four, so he had no memory of how they looked. To escape the curse, he leaves Tokyo and travels down to Takamatsu, where he whiles away his time at a private library and the local gym. In alternate chapters, we follow an elderly Tokyo man named Satoru Nakata, who suffered a strange episode when he was nine, causing him to lose all memory and his ability to read or write, but giving him the ability to talk to cats. One day, he decides to travel down to a place where there's a big bridge. He has no idea what to do once he gets there or why he needs to go there, but decides to worry about that later. And so, across 430-odd pages, the two characters run away and towards forces beyond their control, increasingly intertwining their lives, but never crossing paths once.

Kafka on the Shore took me close to a month to finish. It isn't even that huge, but there's so much intrigue in here, that occasionally I spent a few days digesting what I had just read. Had I known beforehand what this book had - magical realism, people who can talk to cats, people who can cross the invisible barrier between life and death - I may never have read this book. Interestingly, I never read much about Murakami's works before - these are apparently standard elements in his books. And despite my usual reluctance to read anything that's not grounded in reality, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There were times, I emerged from the book as if in a trance. The writing is deceptively simple - I loved it that Murakami didn't bother with flowery sentences, rather relying on simple straightforward language to drive home his point.

Kafka on the Shore also follows other wonderful characters - Oshima, the person in charge of the library, who loves music and shares stories about musicians with Kafka; Hoshino, the truck driver who leaves everything and decides to accompany Nakata on his strange journey; Miss Saeki, the fifty-year old patron of the library whose tragic past clings to her even thirty years later, and who Kafka imagines to be his long-lost mother. These characters are as well-created as the two protagonists. When I started reading, I was more interested in Kafka's story, but as the pages kept turning, Nakata's strange mission intrigued me more.

Like I said, there is strange stuff happening in this book, and not even in the paranormal realm, but in a very metaphysical sense. Although my first brush with surrealism made me a bit worried, soon as I accepted it, I found I didn't have problem with anything else that the book offered. What I loved most about this book is that it definitely challenged me. It questioned my ability to accept the impossible or see beyond. It challenged me to accept the idea of people who can talk to cats and stones, people who can live as their present 50-year old self and their own 20-year old self, at the same time (though in different spaces). It challenged me to accept the idea of a world where you can meet dead people to get answers to your most pressing questions. This isn't your usual fantasy - think of it as Neil Gaiman's Coraline, who could go through a door in her home to the other side only to see an identical world, but much crueler. Like they say, once you accepted the impossible, the possibilities are endless. Mostly, Kafka on the Shore challenged me to construct my own barriers between reality and otherworld, and keep moving the barrier further as he put forth an idea.

Reading Kafka on the Shore made me remember why I loved the TV show, LOST. LOST wasn't a show you could take at face value. There was nothing superficial about LOST. For everything that happened in the show, there were layers and layers of hidden meanings underneath it. Two of the most common complaints I have heard of this show are that unbelievable stuff happen, and that no answers are given. And that's exactly how I would classify Kafka on the Shore. Unbelievable stuff happens on the outside, but underneath those, there are meanings. The book is written at such a metaphysical level that it's easier to grasp the threads once you understand that the world in this book runs on a different dimension. For that reason, this is a book that has to be reread - it's almost impossible to get all the threads at one go. And if this weren't a huge book, I would have reread it, but I think I'll revisit it next year. I'm pretty much astounded at Murakami's ingenuity at writing this book. How he managed to hold this story together with all that happens is pretty much incredible.

Kafka on the Shore was the first book I read for my Blogger Recommends feature. I saw this book reviewed on Ti's blog, Book Chatter, and I'm glad I finally read it. Now I can see the appeal of Murakami, and am looking forward to his huge new book 1Q84.

A note about the translation: The edition I read is a translation done by Philip Gabriel, and while it was a good piece for the most part, occasionally I felt as if the book was Americanized at places. I was especially disappointed to see the American currency used instead of the Japanese one, and in some places, the phrases are almost entirely American.


I borrowed this book from my library.


16 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

It sounds like reading this was quite an undertaking and I admire you for doing it.  I'm not sure it's for me though.

Helen Murdoch said...

This sounds like quite a read and I am impressed that you stuck with it for so long. Magical realism does me in (though I am not proud of that fact) and I would probably have given up on this book. But, I am so glad you didn't as it sounds like it has a lot to offer!

zibilee said...

I tried to read Murakami once, and didn't have much success, but I think that was because I wasn't ready for him as a reader at that time. I have to admit that this one sounds very interesting and like something that I would really love to check and for myself. It sounds surreal, and magical, and wonderful, so it goes on the list! Fantastic and wonderfully detailed review, Aths! I loved it!

Ti said...

You could not have reviewed this any better than you did. You really set the tone, just right. I loved so many characters in this book. Mr. Nakata and the truck driver being two of them. And as you said, as soon as you get over the initial weirdness, everything else seems just fine.

I do think Murakami is known for his infatuation with American pop-culture. That is one of the reasons why Japan is not overly fond of his work. He is the black sheep and it sounds like he enjoys being that person .There is an article that I just shared on Facebook that discusses this very thing. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/magazine/the-fierce-imagination-of-haruki-murakami.html?pagewanted=all%3Fsrc%3Dtp&smid=fb-share

Athira / Aths said...

When I started reading, I felt it was a very simple book, but as I kept reading, I came across a ton of themes and I realized that this is a book with many layers.

Athira / Aths said...

Magical realism does me in too, so I'm glad that I lasted through (and enjoyed) this book. It was definitely different from many other such books I've read.

Athira / Aths said...

I think timing is very important when you read Murakami. It's easy not to absorb his writing and just abandon it. I'm glad I managed to read it at a very receptive time and I hope you enjoy it too. I know you love magical realism. :)

Athira / Aths said...

I did catch plenty of those Western references and I was fine with that - curious yes, but I assumed Murakami was just creating such a setting. I did wonder about many of the phrases (I assumed the translation took some liberties with that). The currency thing though, bugged me. I wonder what the currency was in the original Japanese book.

occasionallyzen said...

What an intriguing review- haven't read Murakami in a long time, and wasn't really interested in this one, but now you have piqued my interest. Fascinated by your note about the translation- that would annoy me as well, I wonder why publishers assume we need everything Americanized? Curious to know what they have done with the translation for sale in the UK, and if that would be different.

Lisa said...

I hadn't realized this one had magic realism in it. I've tried and tried but that rarely works for me (Isabel Allende is the lone exception). But since you're not a big fan of it either and still enjoyed this book, I may yet have to give it a try.

Athira / Aths said...

I do hope you give it a try. I was pretty much surprised by it. I definitely enjoyed it so you may too.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm curious to know that too. If you choose to read the book, I will be looking for your thoughts, esp on the translation.

cbjames said...

I'm soon going to be immersed in IQ84.  I may give it another try tonight, but I'll have it in my hand by 4pm tomorrow at the latest.  Can't wait.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm envious! I'm sorely tempted to buy but I don't think I will have time to read it this year, so I'll have to give it a pass for now.

Danielle said...

I really enjoy magical realism but for some reason just keep putting off reading this, I guess I read a few reviews which said it was too much like hard work, but your review has made it sound like it is exactly my kind of thing, I will definitely pick up a copy of this soon.

Athira / Aths said...

There are a lot of metaphors in this book, maybe that's why. I wouldn't say hard, but nothing is direct, that's all. I hope you give it a try.