Originally published (in Japanese) in 2002. English translation published 2005. 656 pages
Kafka on the Shore follows the fortunes of two remarkable characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home at 15, under the shadow of his father's dark prophesy. The aging Nakata, tracker of lost cats, who never recovered from a bizarre childhood affliction, finds his pleasantly simplified life suddenly turned upside down. Their parallel odysseys are enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerising dramas. Cats converse with people; fish tumble from the sky; a ghostlike pimp deploys a Hegel-spouting girl of the night; a forest harbours soldiers apparently un-aged since WWII. There is a savage killing, but the identity of both victim and killer is a riddle.
Murakami's new novel is at once a classic tale of quest, but it is also a bold exploration of mythic and contemporary taboos, of patricide, of mother-love, of sister-love. Above all it is an entertainment of a very high order.
This is what a boy named Crow says to Kafka Tamura, who aspires to be "the world's toughest fifteen-year-old." It may as well have been a warning from Murakami to the reader:
"Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step. There's no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That's the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.
And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.
And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about."
In a Haruki Murakami story, you can expect the following:
1. The story will be fantastic and hugely entertaining.
2. It won't always make sense.
3. All the dorky male protagonists will get blow jobs.
Kafka on the Shore runs along two parallel tracks, telling the story of Kafka Tamura, who has run away from his father, who prophesied that he would have sex with his mother and his sister, and Satoru Nakata, an elderly man who was struck down along with his entire elementary school class just before the end of World War II by some inexplicable phenomenon which left only him unable to feel or remember anything. He was, however, left with the gift of being able to talk to cats. Now living on a subsidy from "the Governor" (of Tokyo) which he supplements by tracking down lost cats, Nakata discovers that there is a sinister individual on the loose who's killing cats, and only he can stop the killing.
But being a Haruki Murakami story, this is about far, far more than a teenage runaway and a sociopathic cat-killer. Those two parallel storylines might as well occur in parallel worlds. In fact, at times they do. They intersect in subtle ways that aren't readily noticeable until the very end, and even then it's not clear what the heck just happened. Along the way, Kafka and Nakata both encounter a variety of characters from the mundane to the offbeat to the frighteningly supernatural. Nakata is being drawn toward a destiny he was not aware of and never sought. Kafka is fleeing one that was foretold to him and which he doesn't want. And neither of them can escape their destinies, though they do have moments of decision that prove they have free will (or do they?), and they make brave, foolish, and sometimes bad choices.
I am developing a love/hate relationship with Murakami. His stories are weird, great tales, entertaining as hell with details that don't just come out of left field but the left spiral arm of the galaxy, and nuances I am sure I miss both because I don't quite "get" Murakami yet and because some stuff has to be lost in translation.
But he's totally skeevy. It's not just that hand-jobs and wet willing mouths and vaginas abound, it's that most of the time there is no point to the sex, like now and then Murakami gets bored with the story and decides to describe an Oedipal dream in wet squicky detail, or in the middle of a secondary character's quest to find a magic stone: Suddenly! Hooker blowjob!
Seriously, there's a scene in this book where Kafka literally sits there and contemplates his penis. Maybe it was meant to be ironic. But since every single Murakami book I've read goes way into TMI about menstruation and semen, I think Haruki Murakami's just kind of a pervert. A magical literary pervert.
Lest you think all I noticed was the surrealism and the blowjobs, there was more - much more - to this novel. It's a bit of a bildungsroman, and it's very obviously a modern Japanese echo of Oedipus Rex (Murakami pretty much hits us over the head with that one), and there are many allusions to Japanese fairy tales which I would have missed if I hadn't read so many Japanese fairy tales when I was younger. There's stuff about Hegel and Beethoven and art in general, and there is also a powerful sense of humanity in Nakata and the secondary characters, notably Hoshino, the intellectually incurious truck driver who aids the illiterate Nakata on his quest and turns out to be the one most changed by it, but to a lesser extent, Oshima, the genderqueer librarian who pretty much has all the best quotes in the book.
"What do you think? I'm not a starfish or a pepper tree. I'm a living, breathing human being. Of course I've been in love."
"Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe."
So, I really liked Kafka on the Shore, mindfuck that it is, but there are times it made me squirm. When I want to read another Murakami book, it's not so much because I'm expecting a great literary experience that will make me happy but more like, I just can't not want to see what he'll do next.
Verdict: Fantasy by any other name, but a peculiar surrealistic fantasy blending dreams and parallel worlds with modern Japan. The magic is all unexplained plot devices while the characters are the center of the story. Haruki Murakami is like sushi, an acquired taste that some love and others will never stop gagging over. This was not my favorite Murakami novel, but it was still entertaining and interesting and weird in a good but uncomfortable way. But he also kind of reminds me of Piers Anthony, if Piers Anthony could write and actually had meaningful and interesting things to say: the line between "fun and magical story" and "perverse" can disappear in a hurry.
Also by Haruki Murakami: My reviews of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.