Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

It is extremely rare for me to actively avoid a certain novel on the basis of difficulty. I enjoy a challenge and believe, for the most part, that reading should require us to push certain boundaries. In my view, those books that we steer away from because of personal prejudices or concerns are those we would garner the most benefit from reading (unless of the Fifty Shades of Grey variety, obviously). Breaking down the wall that stood between me and Charles Dickens has simply proved this point. Born of a fear that I would struggle with his prose and subject choices, I constantly found excuses to push him to the bottom of my reading pile. Thanks to some persistent friends and a long train commute, I finally threw myself into Bleak House and have not looked back since. Dickens is absolutely a challenge but the rewards are, I think, completely worth the effort.

As I have said a few times before, I have consistently maintained my habits and reading style since The Book Habit’s inception. While the blog has inevitably meant that more recommendations and book loans come my way, I was never going to be one to read only the Classics in an effort to appear more literary or impressive. I have an unbelievably eclectic taste and I want The Book Habit to reflect this. But the blog has definitely forced me to consider some of those odd prejudices and trends that impact my reading choices. One contemporary author in particular has been the victim of my strange and foundationless bias – namely, celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Murakami is a writer that I have come across consistently for a number of years, in the form of recommendations, bestseller lists, and numerous interviews. Presumably, it is a combination of these that has fed my fear. Because Murakami is an author that I have avoided like the plague. Questioning this prejudice, I still could not actually tell you why Murakami’s work inspired such avoidance – perhaps it was concern about his admittedly strange fictional worlds, maybe his style, or even simply a fear that I wouldn’t understand the plots. Whatever the reason, I decided it was high time that I throw these worries to the sideline and give Kafka on the Shore a go. While I can’t say that this was an easy read, it is further proof that the novels we avoid are often those that enrich us the most as readers.

Kafka on the Shore opens as 15 year-old Kafka Tamura prepares to run away from home. Living in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, Kafka is fleeing his father’s twisted, Oedipal prophecy – a prophecy that predicts Kafka will kill his father, and sleep with his mother and sister. Although both mother and sister left home when Kafka was just 4 years-old, Kafka is resolved to ensure that the prophecy has no chance of realisation. He flees to Takamatsu, where he establishes himself as an assistant in the Komura Private Library, thanks to the help of the librarian Oshima. When Kafka’s father is murdered, however, the threads of reality begin to unravel and time oscillates. As the narrative of Kafka’s journey progresses, the plot is intersected with the parallel odyssey of the elderly Nakata. After undergoing a strange childhood experience during the Second World War, in which he fell into an inexplicable coma after seeing a flashing light in the sky, Nakata was left with a blank memory and the loss of his reading and writing abilities. Now designated mentally-imparied, Nakata’s old-age is distinguished only by his strange talent for talking to cats. After a run-in with the mysterious Johnnie Walker, a man who murders cats and eats their hearts, Nakata sets out on his own journey across Japan – a journey that sees fish raining from the sky and a pimp modelling himself on Colonel Sanders (of KFC fame). As Nakata’s and Kafka’s fates look set to collide, it is clear that resolution for both cannot be achieved without further blood shed. And the closer the plot comes to its conclusion, the more reality loses its shape to the riddle of existence.

“Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Kafka on the Shore is not a book that offers answers. After closing the final pages, I sat bemused for quite some time. This is a novel that takes pleasure in turning reality on its head, without explanation or disclaimer. In this regard, it also offers no resolution. But the above quote, spoken by Oshima, stuck out to me as perhaps the best explanation of what Murakami is trying to do. Kafka on the Shore is a book that pushes the limits of imagination by twisting experience within the boundaries of reality. It is not set in a world invented entirely by the author’s mind but is, instead, grounded in contemporary Japanese society and culture. This background makes the impact of Murakami’s abstraction of reality all the more intense. As a reader, I found this abstraction uncomfortable – but not in a bad way. It is uncomfortable because it naturally sends you looking for answers, trying to work out why. But as the above quote illustrates, Murakami did not write this book to offer a simple plot with eventual resolution. Rather, Kafka on the Shore is comprised almost entirely of riddles, few of which are given any kind of answer.

This undoubtedly makes the book difficult to get your head around. I found, however, that once I stopped resisting Murakami’s style with an endless search for the point, I could appreciate the utterly unique nature of the novel. As a big fan of magical realism, I was expecting something in the mould of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the fairly standard model for all who follow in the genre). But Kafka on the Shore goes beyond the magical realism with which most of us will be familiar. Mostly, I think, because Murakami does not throw in his warped realities with a view to emphasising particular plot points or character traits. Instead, the warped reality is the point of the novel. I have no doubt that these conclusions sound unbelievably pretentious and, most likely, as though I am being deliberately obtuse. But Kafka on the Shore is not a book that I believe any reader could adequately review with concrete detail on the reading experience. When I finished reading, my immediate reaction was ‘There is no way I can possibly write a review of this’. Mostly because I could not even dissect my own opinion of the novel. I have never felt so ambiguous about a book before. I knew that I loved it but was simultaneously confused, frustrated, and completely in awe. I do not believe that there has ever been a book like this and I cannot see that even near-replication will be a possibility.

Kafka on the Shore is a novel that could have been utterly chaotic. Take a contemporary setting and throw in a handful of bizarre characters, a little Colonel Sanders mimicry, Oedipal prophecies, a haemophilic transgender librarian, showers of leeches and fish, and some cat talk. A recipe for chaos if there ever was one. Yet Murakami exercises complete and utterly masterful control over his creation. While the intersecting riddles are numerous and complex, the reader is never left with a sense that Murakami lacked purpose in every line and detail of the novel. He is, instead, constantly pushing his readers to their limits.

“And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others. 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 is all about.”

I came across this quote some time ago, before thoughts of actually reading Kafka on the Shore were even entertained. But working through the novel has given these words a new poignancy. And I am quite sure that Murakami intends this passage to be read as reflective of the reader’s experience of Kafka on the Shore. This is absolutely one of the most troubling books I have read – it pulls against most of my natural instincts as a reader. But I am completely addicted. The day after finishing Kafka, I found myself in possession of 1Q84. While I am more than ready to throw myself into Murakami’s most recent work, I am letting Kafka lie in my head for a while. As, I am sure, you will feel the need to if you choose to pick it up. Whether or not you do, I would encourage you to consider throwing yourself into one of those books that you’ve been avoiding for a while. Perhaps your prejudices will be confirmed. Or, just maybe, you will find yourself reading a book like Kafka on the Shore – undeniably difficult, but utterly spellbinding.

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