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Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

June 27, 2010

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
published by Knopf; January 18, 2005

This novel is a twisting, tumbling dream-like journey, with characters who are not fully drawn but oddly compelling. It blends history, philosophy, Eastern spirituality, and Western popular culture. I don’t claim to understand what it all means. Throughout the novel, I kept having the sense I was about to “get it,” then the meaning — like a fragment of a dream — would slip away.

Three parallel stories run through the novel, and we don’t understand until later how they’re all intertwined. A precocious fifteen-year-old, who has renamed himself Kafka, runs away from home. He is fleeing a barren family life and a peculiar Oedipal prophecy. He takes up residence in a library, continuing his rich self education. In a second story, Nakata, an intellectually challenged man in his 60s, has an uncanny gift for communicating with cats. He uses this talent to earn money finding lost cats; one such mission drastically changes his life. In a third thread, we are taken back to World War II, glimpsing a strange event which threatened a group of schoolchildren.

This book is beautifully written, with rich imagery and splendid metaphorical language. The author has a knack for painting a scene vividly, creating a sense of reality that contrasts with the novel’s pervasive dream-like quality. The well crafted language and the concrete, “real” quality of many scenes sucks you in and carries you along with the flow of this chaotic, surreal journey, making you happy to go along for the ride. Here is a snippet of lifelike descriptive writing:

My head propped up by prickly brambles, I take a deep breath and smell plants, and dirt, and mixed in, a faint whiff of dog crap. I can see the night sky through the tree branches. There’s no moon or stars, but the sky is strangely bright. The clouds act as a screen, reflecting all the light from below. An ambulance wails off in the distance, grows closer, then fades away. By listening closely, I can barely catch the rumble of tires from traffic.

The novel is full of odd metaphorical elements, like a man with half a shadow, World War II soldiers who have never aged, and fish and leeches raining from the sky. At moments, there is a Through the Looking Glass quality, with surreal riddles. The surreal twists get stranger and stranger, until we have a sociopath who calls himself Johnnie Walker, for the character representing the whiskey brand, and a pimp in the form of Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Woven throughout all of this is discourse about fate, the relationship between the past and present, and various metaphysical ideas. Not to mention a prostitute who discusses Hegel. A philosophy student’s gotta earn a living somehow. 😉

I enjoyed this novel the way I’d enjoy a vibrant, beautiful surreal painting. I was mesmerized by the book’s confusing dream-like quality and I enjoyed the author’s writing and the wealth of intriguing philosophical ideas strewn throughout the story. I definitely do not claim to understand all of it, but I liked the challenge. There are also strong elements of both Eastern spirituality and poetry flowing through the story. For example:

“It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.”

On the other hand, since understanding the plot and characters was a slippery experience, I didn’t fully connect with the people in the story. For me, this was a book that appealed more to the intellect than the heart. Since I am a reader who is led by my emotions, I didn’t fall in love with it. Of course, many people might have the opposite experience. The surreal elements of the story might bypass ones brain, the way a poem or a dream might, making what it has to say about human experience all the more powerful.

I think many readers who enjoy challenging, unconventional novels will like this book. Be forewarned — there are bits of raw, somewhat disturbing sexuality, and an intensely horrible scene involving some cats.

If you’ve read this novel, what did you think of it? Did you find it a story that plays on the intellect more than the heart, as I did, or was it a more emotional or visceral experience? Or neither?

Read More Reviews: Things Mean a Lot; Misfit Salon; Write No Evil; Bombastic Bagman


12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 2:13 am

    Good lord I have so many things running through my brain right now after reading “intensely horrible scene involving some cats”….. This book is very close to the top of my TBR pile right now, and I can’t wait to read it.

    • June 27, 2010 2:30 am

      Well, if the cat thing doesn’t put you off, nothing will. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

  2. June 27, 2010 2:22 am

    I’ve got to admit, this review has helped to confirm in my mind all the reasons why I haven’t read this book yet. Disturbing stuff, horrible cat scenes, and lots and lots of surrealism…yeah.

    • June 27, 2010 2:28 am

      That’s one of the many ways reviewers help each other out, by helping confirm that certain books are *not* for you. 😉

  3. June 27, 2010 3:37 am

    Your review had me fascinated enough to want to read it until I got to the cats. I don’t think I could cope with that.

  4. June 27, 2010 8:23 am

    I loved this book, but like you , I didn’t understand all of it (I have the same thing with most of Murakami’s books). I like how you compare it to a surreal painting, I think it’s like that for me too.

    • June 27, 2010 3:09 pm

      I suspect the experience of being pulled into the story but not understanding all of it was more or less what the author intended. 🙂

  5. June 27, 2010 11:23 am

    I STILL can’t think of that cats scene 😦

    Having said that, I loved this book, and reading it was actually more of an emotional journey for me. Rationally I couldn’t, and still can’t, make sense of the story, but I SO enjoyed the ride that I don’t mind at all. That’s what usually happens with I read Murakami.

    • June 27, 2010 3:11 pm

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Ana. I suspected some people’s experience with this book would be very different from mine; it played with my head much more than my heart. And for the record, I’m glad you warned me there would be a ridiculously awful scene involving cats. It would’ve been much worse if I hadn’t been forewarned. 🙂

  6. June 28, 2010 8:50 pm

    “twisting, tumbling dream-like journey” – perfect description of the book! Many times I felt like Alice in Murakamiland. Great, thorough review.

    • June 30, 2010 1:02 pm

      I LOVE your “Alice in Murakamiland” comment! That’s a perfect description of this experience. It kept getting curiouser and curiouser. 😉

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