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.