Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Uncomfortable writing this review.  Any book with such a plurality of possible critical interpretations is bound to be difficult to précis; and similarly I’m almost certain to fail the interpretive expectations of any number of fans, purely because Murakami enjoys such a breadth of readership that any attempt to pigeon-hole this book is likely to satisfy readers of one particular ilk, and disenfranchise many others.  And I wouldn’t want to do that.

Actually – scratch that – I am going to plant my flag; if anything, Kafka on the Shore, rather than defying meaning, challenges the reader to find it; so let’s go, let’s chuck some ‘interpretations’ at it, and see which ones stick…

If you’ve not read it, Kafka on the Shore goes something like this: it’s a bildungsroman (of sorts) – 15-year-old  Kafka Tamura runs away from home, simultaneously running away from his father’s sinister Oedipal prophecy that Kafka will sleep with his mother (and, in an odd addendum, sister) and destroy his Dad.  A concurrently running narrative involves 70-year-old illiterate “cat tracker” Nakata and his ill-defined quest across Japan; having murdered a mysterious stranger and abandoned his life-long home – his journey of self-discovery provides a charming parallel to Kafka’s, despite the disparity of age.

So far so de rigueur, but what begins as relatively standard litfic fare soon acquires various tropes and motifs of genres diverse: a Midwich Cuckoos-esque intervention of an ‘other’ force lends a striking sci-fi bent to the plot, while devices of metaphysics and magical-realism invade the narrative of both protagonists to radically alter the course of the story.  Finally, the intervention of a ghost (or, rather, an earlier version of an older character) brings touches of Derridan hauntology (on a personal level) to the text, as spectres of happier, perfect versions of the past continually haunt the hierarchies of the present.  So if this book does tickle your fancy, prepare for ghosts, spirits, (possible) aliens, rains of leeches, never-aging WWII veterans and many more peculiarities.

The crux of the fan-divide is this: are the (how shall we put it..?) oddities/weridnesses/non-realistic aspects of Kafka on the Shore merely manifestations of the characters’ internal psychoses, or are they objective, physical facts of the universe of the novel?  It’d be easy, for example, to categorize the ‘boy named crow’ character as an internal fancy of Kafka – an ‘imaginary friend’ concocted by the protagonist to accompany him on his journeys (both physically through Japan and symbolically into maturity) and to provide a narrative reason/(excuse) to engage Kafka in psychoanalytic dialogue.  But (methinks) such a boring interpretation is dismissive of the weird/fantastical aspects of the narrative.  So much of the book questions the nature of the subjective (what is love, what is family, what is sex, what is home etc.) that it is surely fruitful to extend this enquiry into the objective by introducing non-naturalistic/weird phenomena (strange crow-boys, raining fish, talking cats, invisible gateways, magic flutes…) and using them to probe the nature of the universe, as well as the nature of ourselves.

So, here’s my two pence (cents, for my transatlantic friends): all the weird/metaphysical stuff functioning in Kafka on the Shore is real!  I want it to be real, and I want to believe that this is a story of the fantastic, and not just an over-extended sympathetic fallacy.  Of course, any book featuring a coma is open to that most boring post-modern question: “what if the entire book is the coma?” – well, I choose to suspend my disbelief entirely and I have faith that the oddities are realities, not delusions.  100 pages in, it became clear that there is no single, obvious way to interpret this book’s persistently weird events; so I abandoned an attempt at a psychoanalytic reading and embraced the oddness as physical fact rather than a narrative manifestation of the characters’ inner turmoils.

But that’s not to say that Kafka on the Shore’s metaphysical/sci-fi/weird elements are meaningless trivialities crow-barred into the narrative to earn literary cool-points.  There’s a complex system of signs operating in Kafka on the Shore, and if the magic is real, then what it stands for is real too.

Kafka’s quest to discover sex is quest for completeness, of sorts.  In an inversion of Western/Judeo-Christian notions of sexuality, Kafka believes that he banishes impurity in the act of sex, and the fact that these acts are shared with a spirit (stick with me…) creates a bridge between the modern and traditional as the spirit/ghost/(whatever) acts as a guide to Kafka and helps him to overcome the Shinto notion of impurity.  In effect, Murakami has fashioned a modern, physical world that echoes and reflects themes and motifs of older legend/myth cycles. Here ancient spirits haven’t gone away, or been defeated by science – they function in 21st Century urban Japan in real and influential ways.

Kafka on the Shore, then, is most beautiful when Murakami converges his traditionalist influences with the modern setting.  An ancient spirit that guides Nakata to an ‘entrance stone’ can only be explained as a genuine visitation from a Japanese deity.  Likewise, a disgusting tentacular creature that emerges from the mouth of a dead body is at once a very modern manifestation of a horror film grotesque, and a very traditional materialization of the wingless dragons of Japanese folklore.  The Weird (yup, now with a capital ‘W’) is no less serious in Kafka on the Shore than it was in the most fantastic of Japanese myths.  So, you know; I recommend that you embrace the weirdness, and don’t try to explain it away.

Kafka on the Shore is a love-letter to traditional Japanese literature.  And while I’m hardly steeped in the oeuvre, I was able to recognise where this book pays homage to its sources, and where it deviates.  Kafka on the Shore operates in the margins between the traditional and the modern: where urban realities and mythical fantasies collide and function together, rather than in opposition.

How does it read?: very well, for the most part.  Occasionally Murakami gets a little self-indulgent and pretty much copy-pastes long passages of Nietzsche or Goethe into the book.  Plus the frequent and (often random) sex scenes go too far in their gratuity; unfortunately they end-up dominating the narrative in abrupt and distracting ways.  Whether Murakami did this as an act of titillation (a failed one) or to heighten a connection with the concerns of our teenage first-person narrator is unclear – either way, I found the constant sex obstructed the flow of the story by effectively grinding things to a halt every 50 pages.

Don’t be scared of Kafka on the Shore.  The trick is to wrestle it into submission and pound meanings out of it.  And you really should do this: too much dithering or on-the-fence thinking and this entire book will elude you.  The above is how I’ve chosen to read it – but your reading history/tastes may well make you more inclined to dismiss the fantasy elements, or at least to psychologise them, in order to produce a more naturalistic interpretation.  The fundamental question “what is it?” is still up for debate: urban fantasy, psychological enquiry, Weird fiction (there’s that upper-case W again!) or simple horror/ghost/sci-fi story.  It’s up to you.  For once, I don’t find genre pigeon-holing useful, and if anything, this book is a very good example of the 21st Century phenomenon of the literary genre smorgasbord.  So I recommend you forget labels and enjoy this weird, magical, beautiful book for just what it is.


6 responses to “Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

  1. Pingback: Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami | doggonesauce.com

  2. I’ve read a few of Murakami’s books, and I love his style and ability to make the supernatural seem almost natural. However, of the Murakami books I’ve read, Kafka on the Shore is probably the one I liked least. I can’t explain why, though. I read it a few years ago, so my memory of it is foggy. But I’d have to say The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are my favorites. I should reread them again sometime soon…

  3. Excellent post. I loved this book. You’re absolutely right to say people should be free to interpret it in their own way but for what it’s worth I’ve always shared your view. I’ve read quite a bit of Murakami and bringing together traditional and modern Japan is a recurring theme for him. The only way I could make sense of this book was to take the weird supernatural goings on as real. Of course it’s symbolic and helping us with Kafka’s emotional journey most of the time but that doesn’t mean it’s all just mind-tricks in characters heads. Kafka on the Shore really is beautiful and an absorbing mash-up of genres.

  4. Murakami is one of those authors I have always felt like I ‘should’ open myself up to – yet on the basis of this review I’m feeling even more daunted! Which of his would you recommend as a good starting point, Tomcat – Norwegian Wood, maybe?

    • Hey Carly!!

      I’ve actually only read this and one other – ‘After Dark’ which is, in every way, completely shit, so I can’t offer much advice I’m afraid. I quite liked this one. But you do have to get used to strange sentences like “I’m going inside because it;s about to rain fish” and, when it does, the event is never mentioned again or explained. Ditto men without shadows, stones with constantly changing weight, Colonel Sanders turning up and helping everybody find sex before vanishing unexplained etc etc. I hear Norwegian Wood is one of his more ‘normal’ ones – but I’m not really sure what that means! T.

  5. It sounds like classic Murakami, though I’ve not read this particular one.

    Several of his books mix the mundane and the weird, with the weird often treated as mundane by the characters. Certainly Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance both do as do several of the short stories I’ve read.

    Reading this I think you’d love The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which really pushes some of these themes (including the coma bit, I made a very similar remark to yours above in my review of McCarthy’s novel Remainder). Wonderland alternates between modern day stuff which includes traditional myth continuing into our world and chapters set in some kind of fantasy kingdom which may or may not have the same protagonist and a link to the events in our world.

    It sounds lame, cliched even, but it’s not.

    Murakami got maybe a bit overexposed, but he deserves it. I think he’s a very talented writer. He gets self-indulgent at times in the ones I’ve read too, but it’s worth it and he definitely can write.

    Besides, it’s nice sometimes not to know what genre to put something in.

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