Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami
2002 (2005 in English)

In a recent review, I expressed reservations about Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84. To give this popular novelist a second chance, on the recommendation of an online correspondent I picked up his award-winning earlier work, Kafka on the Shore

I have to say that I was much more engaged, and entertained, by this novel.

Kafka on the Shore has many of the same elements as its successor — unexplained mysticism and magical creatures, parallel stories that slowly weave together, ambiguous plotlines, idiosyncratic cultural references, sex, and quirky humour. But this time it seemed to me that the book held together better, that its disparate and often dispersed elements were heading somewhere at least similar, if not someplace entirely coherent or decipherable.

Thanks to Murakami’s essentially postmodernist approach to the novel, Kafka on the Shore, like 1Q84, ends without either explanation or real resolution. It’s not the author’s job to tell you what you’ve been experiencing.  But as in the later book, if you look for them, there are clues to one approach to the novel’s meanings.

One of the main plot’s key elements is the search for lost people, or more generally, lost identities. This search for that which completes the self is stated explicitly early in the book, uttered by Oshima, a character who is him/herself appropriately sexually ambiguous.

In the ancient world of myth there were three types of people,” Oshima says. “Have you heard about this?” “No.” “In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female. In other words, each person was made out of the components of two people. Everyone was happy with this arrangement and never really gave it much thought. But then God took a knife and cut everybody in half, right down the middle. So after that the world was divided just into male and female, the upshot being that people spend their time running around trying to locate their missing other half.”

Much of the story concerns the circuitous routes through which Kafka, the main character, seeks his “missing other half.” In his case, this search involves looking for his missing mother and sister, without whom his sense of self is achingly incomplete. And when he does find women who can fill these voids, his relationships with both of them are both familial and sexual. His sister surrogate is a friend in reality, but she becomes a sexual victim in dreams. His mother surrogate is  a dream figure who becomes an actual sexual partner. And if this weren’t complex enough, we are led increasingly to believe that the women may be, indeed, not surrogates but the real thing. This feeling is strongly suggested, but never confirmed. When Kafka asks Mrs. Saeki directly if she is his mother, she replies, “You know the answer.” That’s as close as we ever get to the concrete in this resolutely ambiguous novel.

This sense of the transformational, the idea that our lives change us in unpredictable ways, is crucial to the experiences of not only Kafka but also of the magically-altered Nakata and his unlikely enabler, Hoshino. All three characters are changed, transformed, in direct response to the life events they encounter.

Early in the book, there are other quite direct expressions of the kind of internal process, the emotional and conceptual journey, that the novel presents. At the very beginning, Kafka muses:

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.

A few pages later, Kafka expresses the ambiguity at the heart of the novel:

It must have just stopped raining, since everything is still wet and drippy. Clouds to the east are sharply etched against the sky, each one framed by light. The sky looks ominous one minute, inviting the next. It all depends on the angle.

This short passage is a good summary of the central thematic underpinnings of both this book and 1Q84 — “It all depends on the angle.”

Much later, one of several amusingly supernatural characters scolds Hoshino:

“You still don’t get it, do you? We’re talking about a revelation here,” Colonel Sanders said, clicking his tongue. “A revelation leaps over the borders of the everyday. A life without revelation is no life at all. What you need to do is move from reason that observes to reason that acts. That’s what’s critical. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about, you gold-plated whale of a dunce?”

During a surreal interlude in a forest clearing that’s not just a clearing, and in what’s not just a forest, Kafka is told:

“Things outside you are projections of what’s inside you, and what’s inside you is a projection of what’s outside. So when you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time you’re stepping into the labyrinth inside. Most definitely a risky business.”

A risky business, indeed, but in Kafka on the Shore, also a fascinating and highly entertaining experience.

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