Skip to main content

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Oedipal fun for all the family!
Haruki Murakami and I should really get along well. Me and his novels, I mean, not Mr Murakami himself, as he runs too much and is too fussy about his coffee–that would likely bug me. We have much in common; we're both mysterious, otherworldly, filled with wonder and mythology; we're both light on the eyes but heavy on the brain; and we both like wearing white*. But I have a history of missing the point with Japanese literature, something I am trying a little to rectify. Much like Japan's famed Noh theatre, I know I like what's going on, but I don't know why, and it is a source of irritation. Am I obtuse? Is it all too subtle and refined for me? 

Someone told me that in a Western theatre tradition, acting comes from inside–it's driven by emotions–whereas the Japanese tradition is cerebral, actors becoming the essence of characters and the literal ghosts of ancestral beings. I think I might just lack the cultural references to fully grasp what I see and read. I hope it's as simple as that. What I do trust though is that I love the alienness that this little misstep of comprehension creates. 

Circuitously, I came by this novel because of a post somewhere about a new translation and edition of Sōseki Natsume's short novel The Miner and about how the titular Kafka Tamura discusses it with the librarian of the private library which serves as the hub of the action and through which nearly all actors pass at one point or another. Funnily enough, sitting on my shelves, along with I Am A Cat and The 210th Day was this novel, in hardback, untouched since I liberated it from the damaged stock bin at my bookshop in 2005 (along with 1Q84 and the more recent Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, both unread as yet)Enough of a intertextual coincidence to nudge me into trying again to understand what the hell is going on in a Murakami novel.

This one, luckily, starts out fairly straightforwardly, with a boy talking to a crow about running away from home. Then come some transcripts of interviews about a strange incident during World War II about mass and unexplainable unconsciousness. Then an old man who we eventually realise is one of the children affected by the mysterious occurrence talks with cats. Then the boy, Kafka Tamura, runs away from home and the old man murders something that he thinks is the physical embodiment of the man on the label of Johnnie Walker-brand whisky but turns out to be Kafka's father. Then it rains mackerel.

Okay, so I lied, it's not at all straightforward, but for once, I was being swept along, understanding not an impediment to a deep and satisfying enjoyment. It was like being in a forest in summer, moving from patches of luscious green shade into hot summer sun, insects skittering and fizzing around, birdsong bright in your ears, and not caring that you don't know how and why it all came to be. You have only a ghost of an idea, that's all.

But it's not all simply a transient, sensory feast; there's cement beneath the snow. When Kafka meets Oshima and Miss Saeki at the Komura library, or even before that, in a bus during his flight from Tokyo, we stumble on to a terrible Oedipal prophecy; the old man is given a quest he can't understand (being not bright at all); there are characters offering profound insights and deep understanding, like a Greek chorus explaining the action throughout for the dullards like me, and peppering the story with discussions on irony, philosophy, classical music, writers and artists, showing off Murakami's own diverse and eclectic interests and learning; and there are concepts striding purposely about, both literally and metaphorically, directing the course of characters' lives and even scoring a hooker for one. It's a densely layered cake of a novel, filled with mythological jam and creamy erudition, drizzled with love and loss, passion and pain. It's a wonderful book, haunting, and both cerebral and visceral, bridging the divide between Eastern and Western literature. 

Maybe I've been too stupid in the past, too young and impatient to properly appreciate the work of Murakami. But then maybe he's being deliberately enigmatic? I say, what's a little bit of mystery between friends?


*Or at least we did, until Vintage gave him a new wardrobe.

Comments

How's about that then?

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to…

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…

Fairyland by Paul McAuley

Twenty-three years ago, as of the writing of this, Paul McAuley hadn't yet seen the birth of online monstrosity Google and was ten years ahead of Facebook. Only one year ago, Jeff VanderMeer was tinkering disturbingly with biotech in his [*FABULOUS] post-apocalyptic horror/sci-fi novel Borne. And yet McAuley seems to have predicted the moral and legal morass of genetic engineering (not the first, I might repeat, referencing John von Neumann etc...) misappropriated for fun, profit and warfare. He also predicted the smoking ban. And that's just in the first few pages. Whereas a lot of speculative fiction is vulnerable to senescence, Fairyland has remained surprisingly spry, aging gracefully whilst maintaining it's whip-smart wits and energy.

Perhaps building on William Gibson's classic (was it a classic in 1994?) Neuromancer, McAuley plunged into the proto-pools of his biologist and botanist background and pulled out the dolls and fairies that populate his future European…