There are two major reasons as to why I choose Kafka on the Shore as my first Murakami’s novel:
1. The name Kafka in the title is pretty intriguing
2. I like cats and in this book, cats can speak to humans (interesting plot angle)
The Bigger Picture
Written by Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore is an absorbing metaphysical mind-bender tale that is a real page turner. This book addresses basic fundamental themes which are so simple, they seem to be quite clichéd. One of them is that you can run from your life/problems but never escape and secondly that every person on the planet has a purpose and destiny that they are born to fulfill. The way the author chooses to illustrate these themes is far from simple and to do this, Murakami shares with us two tales. The first tale is about a 15 year old Kafka Tamura (his real name is never revealed) who runs away from his home in Tokyo to escape a dark prophecy made by his father. Kafka then winds up in the provincial city of Takamatsu where he meets the cross-gender librarian of a private library, Oshima and its enigmatic owner, Mrs. Saeki who provide him with employment. The second tale is focused on an elderly man called Satoru Nakata. When he was nine years old, Nakata went on a school trip in the local woods, along with his class mates. During the expedition, all the children inexplicably lost their consciousness. While all his classmates recovered their senses soon, Nakata was unconscious for a much longer duration. When he recovered, Nakata had lost all his memories, his ability to read and write, and most of his intelligence. On the upside, he acquired the ability to talk to cats, and so he earns his living by supplementing the small subsidy that he gets from the government with the money that his neighbors pay him for finding their lost cats.
Five decades later, in the course of a cat search Nakata lands up in the house of the sculptor Koichi Tamura who is the father of Kafka. Here Nakata is forced by Tamura (posing as Jack Daniels) into stabbing him to death in a ‘kill me or the cats gets gruesomely murdered’ scene. Back in the first tale, Kafka falls in love with the 15 year old ghost of Mrs. Saeki and ends up having an affair with her. Later as investigations of his father’s death intensifies, Kafka retreats into a mountain hut that is owned by Oshima. Here, within the depths of the surrounding forests, he finds the entrance to a semi-real world. Meanwhile Nakata, whose attempt to turn himself in for murder is dismissed at the police station, follows a physic urge to go westwards in the company of a truck driver, Hoshino. They finally arrive together in the city of Shikoku, where both the stories of Kafka and Nakata finally collide.
The characters and elements in this book are extremely diverse and dramatic be it Kafka, Nakata or Hoshino. From a ghost like pimp to a Hegel quoting prostitute to soldiers who have not aged since the Second World War, there are many characters that make this book extremely intriguing. In addition, the novel also has some really interesting snippets from music, history, philosophy, Greek mythology and the totally amazing world of metaphors and metaphysics. So while these elements may not seem to have an immediate connection with each other, Murakami is successful in bringing them together with almost a poetic perfection, that makes this book really interesting and fascinating at the same time.
Though the book is heavily based on metaphysics, the writing style is so exquisite that it almost seems that we are in another world altogether, something running parallel to the one we actually live in! In fact, there are many profound statements in the book that makes you stop and ponder about your own life. So despite the fact that the storyline might seem confusing, you would still want to read ahead and find out what happened eventually.
One of the most disconnected novels that I have read in a long time, this novel is like a patchwork of scenes and conversations that seem completely unrelated. While some scenes are banal and normal, some are brutal and violent and others are simply mesmerising. Throughout the story, the reader never loses the feel of being of being in a dream, and sometimes it feels like they have stepped right into a nightmare. So despite the fact that all the elements of the story are unconnected and disjointed, it is easy to be bewitched by the story woven by Murakami’s story rather than to figure out how he accomplishes the bewitchment. Though a few elements come together in the end, the author still leaves quite a lot of loose ends for the reader to grasp according to his own judgment and understanding.
I was wondering what it was in this novel that kept me hooked because nothing really happens, especially in the dramatic sense. There are no crazy chases or dangerous villains chasing the heroes. In fact the pace of the book is pretty slow, even leisurely but it manages to grip the readers. Confusion. Thoughts. Feelings. A search for love. For better. For meaning in life. For any meaning. And then comes the understanding that there is no meaning to any of it. That the only meaning that matters is the one we make.
After reading Kafka on the Shore, I have realized that Murakami, just like any other literary masters does not write to please. He does not care about the reading preference of the majority but simply puts his talent in his work and it is completely up to the reader to appreciate/disregard his talent.
This book has been a true delight to me, also because it is one of those rare books that is narrated in first, second and third person. It is indeed a treat for any writer who wants a unique piece to read and critique. There are many elements present in this book from fantasy to horror to suspense to sly quiet humor. And lots of sexuality that is at the same time taboo, tender and violent. That being said, this book is not for everyone. It will only appeal to a certain section of readers. If you are someone who requires logical answers to every incident that happens in the book, you will come away feeling disappointed. This is because Kafka on the Shore requires a certain amount of trust on the part of the reader. And I for one had no difficulty in trusting the story that Murakami was narrating. But again, while I would love the fact that everyone reads this book, I know that this is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Overall for me, reading Kafka on the shore has been like listening to a song in a foreign language. At first, the tune and rhythm catches you and gradually as you understand the meaning of the words, you connect to the song. It is the flow of the mystical world that the author creates that sweeps you in, and bit by bit the story falls into place. But like that foreign music that you have grown to love and even understand through translations and interpretations, there will still be a part of that song that evades your understanding. Like that, the sheer beauty of the writing and story will continue to draw a select few readers who will come away really liking this novel. Above all, I know that after having just read one of his novels, I am going to enjoy most of Murakami’s works in spite of their flaws because sometimes such surrender leads to pure bliss.
(P.S. Oh and also, I want Oshima to be real and to be my friend/life coach. Please?)
Buy this book if you are a fan of Murakami. This is my first book by the author and I thoroughly enjoyed it and would definitely want others to read it as well. But at the same time, I would warn them that Murakami does not write for everyone.
I know that it is hard for people who have based their whole life on reason to keep from instantly dismissing the improbable, the impossible, the absurd, the preposterous, but that is a pre-requisite if you are going to hang with Haruki Murakami.
So if you are ready to trust my opinion, I will strongly recommend you to give Murakami a chance to weave his magic. Because trust me, he is a marvelous storyteller. And I hope that if you two have yet to meet, it’s under the right circumstances when you do. This is my first Murakami, and I already know that it won’t be my last.