Haruki Murakami – Kafka On The Shore

Posted on | July 9, 2010 | 15 Comments

murakami, kafka_on_the_shoreSurrealism. I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s the only word that can be used to describe Murakami’s books. Kafka on the Shore is no exception. Leeches and fish rain down, there’s a character called Johnnie Walker, and another called Colonel Saunders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame), a mysterious childhood “accident” results in one of the characters being able to speak to cats, and there’s a portal to a parallel universe.

The book follows two characters in interleaving chapters: Fifteen year old runaway, Kafka Tamura and Nakata, an elderly man who is considered “dumb” by most as he is unable to read or write. While neither of them are aware of the other’s existence, there’s a greater (almost supernatural) force that connects them.

Kafka ran away from home, after this father had cursed him with the Oedipus prophecy: that he would kill his father, and sleep with his mother and sister. His mother and sister had left home when he was merely four years old, and he has no recollection of them whatsoever. He figures he just has to be the toughest fifteen year old boy. Or, so “a boy called Crow” tells him.

And I bet the longer I live, the emptier, the more worthless, I’ll become. Something’s wrong with this picture. Life isn’t supposed to turn out like this! Isn’t it possible to shift direction, to change where I’m headed?”

Then there’s Nakata, who fell unconscious after a bizarre attack while he was still at school. This so-called “attack” left sixteen children unconscious, but when they came to, their memories and intelligence was left intact. They simply had no recollection of the event itself. Nakata, however, lost all his intelligence, and his ability to read or write. Instead, he was bestowed with the ability to talk to cats, which led to him earning a little money by finding lost cats, in addition to the government “sub city” (subsidy) he received.

Kafka runs away to Takamatsu in Shikoku, and starts working in a small private library. He befriends the librarian, Oshima, as well as gets closer to the beautiful albeit melancholy Ms. Saeki, the manager – a lady who still mourns the demise of her long lost love, who was killed about thirty years previously.

Nakata, on the other hand, runs into a dangerous man, Johnnie Walker, in Kafka’s hometown, who is kidnapping cats, and then killing them brutally in order to make a flute of their souls. In order to save the cats, Nakata ends up killing the man and then following his “fate” – he doesn’t know what it is, but he’ll know it when he sees it.

This was an obscure novel, which on finishing, I had more questions than answers. Who is “the boy named crow”? Did Kafka succumb to his fate, or did he manage to avoid it? Can ghosts of living people exist? Can ghosts of people’s past exist? What connected the two characters? And, what actually happened to Nakata in his childhood, that left him bereft of his intelligence?

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed this book, as I do most Murakamis. And, I would recommend it. Just remember, if and when you read it, it’ll be a hell of a ride, and you’ll be second guessing everything right till the last page – and beyond. While some bits were tedious to read, all in all, the characters and the surrealism made it a must-read for me.

Japanese Literature Challenge 4 Note: Kafka on the Shore is the first Murakami I ever had on my shelf. It was given to me as a present sometime in 2008, and I kept “saving it” for the right occasion. I planned on reading it when I went on holiday to Barbados last year, as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 3 hosted by Bellezza last year, and a couple of other times as well. Finally read it about a year later, while the Japanese Literature Challenge 4 is being held. Have been meaning to write a post about the challenge itself for awhile, but kept getting sidetracked. Apologies.

Anyway, head over to Bellezza’s, to find more reviews of Japanese Literature, and to see what everyone else is reading. Hope to see some of your reviews around as well. :)


15 Responses to “Haruki Murakami – Kafka On The Shore”

  1. Jane
    July 9th, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    Ooh, this is the next Murakami on my TBR list – I’ve just finished Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World which I loved. He’s got the most amazing ability to weave a whole new world with words, I just love getting so drawn in.

    I know what you mean about the way his books really leave you wondering though -too much, sometimes, I find. I loved the Wind Up Bird Chronicle but it was just left so wide open at the end, I wondered whether the last chapter had been left out of my edition’s print run! A good friend of mine said Kafka on the Shore was his favourite Murakami though, so I’m looking forward to giving it a go. He’s promised to read my favourite Hemingway in return though, so it’s a good deal all round…

  2. Kim Allen-Niesen
    July 10th, 2010 @ 6:10 am

    I have two Murakami’s on my shelf, one made it as far as my desk, then back to my shelves on the last cleaning. Someday I will get to them, and I hope someday is soon!

  3. Aarti
    July 10th, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    I have never read Murakami before, and every time I consider picking him up, I hesitate because… well, because I don’t know if I could handle the surrealism and that writing style.

  4. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    July 10th, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    This is my favourite Murakami – I just loved the whole strange journey! I’m not sure I can answer any of your questions as it has been a while since I read it and I’m not sure we are supposed to know the answers anyway – the joy is in thinking about all these questions for a long time after finishing the book.

  5. Bellezza
    July 11th, 2010 @ 12:39 am

    I read this twice, and I remember feeling I did come up with some answers. Correct? Maybe not, but they made some sense to me. I remember thinking that Nakata was the boy with the teacher on the hill in the very beginning of the novel, the one she slapped for seeing her have her period. I think the whole experience, plus being bombed, was way traumatic for him.

    I think Johnny Walker his is father, the alcoholic, and mean, mean, mean. Didn’t he behead the cats?

    And, I think Colonel Sanders in some ways represents God: all white, all pure, an icon for people.

    I still have no idea about the eel at the end, slithering out of the man’s mouth, unless it was something evil leaving his body. I’ll have ato refer to my post on this novel, as the first time I read it was at least three years ago, and the second time was two years ago. But, you’re right. You don’t have to understand it, or interpret it correctly, to enjoy the novel.

    Also, I remember reading Murakami saying two things. One, Nakata was his favorite character (I thought in many ways Nakata resembled Murakami himself), and two, that this novel is open to interpretation from the reader. Obviously. ;)

  6. Bellezza
    July 11th, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    p.s. Like Jackie, it’s my favorite Murakami as well. And, sorry for the typos (his/is)…I got carried away in typing too fast.

  7. mee
    July 11th, 2010 @ 4:42 am

    It’s so interesting to read Bellezza’s interpretations! I read this a couple of years ago and it’s definitely not my favorite Murakami. I thought the elements were too random. I could’ve liked it better if I were reading it with some other people to discuss I guess!

  8. Nancy
    July 12th, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    Kafka on the Shore was the first Murakami I read and I enjoyed it tremendously. I did not try to find “meaning” in the various incidents and characters, but treated it as a dream sequence, in which everything is related at an unconscious level. Bridges and cats — I remember bridges and cats.

  9. Joanna
    July 12th, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    Ooh, I’m glad you liked this one! I had VERY mixed thoughts until about half-way through the book and ended up loving it.

  10. biscuit
    July 12th, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    Loved both this one and the windup bird chronicles (the only two I read). The atmosphere of these books is great and you do get *some* answers… enough not to whine :P

  11. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 13th, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    @ Jane : That does sound like a good bargain. :) I haven’t read either Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Hardboiled Wonderland. Loads of people have said that The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is their favourite though, so I must read it soon. I’m guessing my reaction will be pretty similar to yours… Hope you enjoy Kafka On The Shore when you read it.

    @ Kim Allen-Niesen : I hope so too. :)

    @ Aarti : Fair enough. Murakami does have a way with words though, which just pulls you in, and you don’t want to pull away. Think it’s worth a shot, anyway…

    @ Jackie : You’re absolutely right. Also, it leaves the book open-ended to be interpreted as I please, which is a nice luxury. I would love to know what the author had in mind though…

    @ Bellezza : Yeah, Johnnie Walker beheaded the cats to make a flute of their souls. I was seriously bewildered at that point. Think the eel represented evil leaving the body, to keep it pure in death. Too many metaphors. I did enjoy it though. Didn’t know about Nakata being Murakami’s favourite character – thanks for that tidbit.

    @ mee : Quite possibly. I was baffled at quite a few points, and had to think about the content long after I finished the book. Bellezza’s interpretation is interesting, and I kind-of relate to most of it. Not so much on the Colonel Saunders front, but I don’t really have any better ideas. :S

    @ Nancy : Yep, bridges and cats. And stones and leeches. Remarkable, really.

    @ Joanna : I wasn’t quite sure what was happening in the book, for the most part. It was so completely random! Did end up loving it like you though. That’s the important thing.

    @ biscuit : Not whining, just saying… :p

  12. charley
    July 22nd, 2010 @ 4:50 am

    I added a whole bunch of Murakami to my list after reading Kafka on the Shore in 2008, and then I immediately lost all desire to read his work. Perhaps the mood will strike again one of these days.

  13. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 23rd, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    @ charley : Hopefully! His stories are pretty different, but also so addictive. Someday soon, you’ll probably want to read something completely mental, and Murakami’ll be your first call!

  14. Parrish
    August 6th, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

    This was my first Murakami, after finishing it, even my answers had questions, his writing inhabits an alternate reality thats 1 hairs width different from ours & its this magic realism that makes him fantastic & bewildering.

  15. Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita : another cookie crumbles
    September 12th, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    […] bizarre book that you’ve read? I think this is mine, hands down, beating Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore… Category: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, BBC's Big Read {Best Loved Novel}, […]

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