"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.