Saturday, February 12, 2005

Title: Kafka On The Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Press

A 15 year old boy runs away from home. To anyone he asks he tells them his name is Kafka. Leaving the father who raised him from the age of 4 behind, going in search of the mother who abandoned him. His initial journey leads him to a curious little library in a town far from his home in Tokyo. Once there he befriends the library staff, and finds himself with plenty of time to think about, which is just as well given what he is faced with.

Nakata was 9 in 1944, an evacuee from Tokyo who was involved in a strange incident. While the rest of the class quickly recovered, Nakata was in a coma for 3 weeks, after which he had lost all memory, and never quite recovered. Now an old man living in Tokyo he survives thanks to a subsidy from the city for the mentally disabled, and makes a little cash on the side as a cat finder thanks to his ability to talk to cats. However, when he finds himself confronted by Johnnie Walker cat killer, he decides it is time to leave Tokyo quickly.

Kafka On The Shore follows these two characters, in a fashion that pretty much alternates back and forward from chapter to chapter. Leading the two characters forward, in a manner that weaves their stories together to some degree. With that the narrative switches, for Kafka we are in first person narrative, though there are odd little sequences, detached and dreamlike, where we switch to second person and bold print. By contrast Nakata’s material is third person, which allows for an interesting little switch to occur. As we follow Nakata’s wandering journey across Japan he is helped by a variety of lorry drivers, one who decides to join him and help him as much as he can. In this process, the lorry driver becomes the lead character, allowing us to experience his awakening as a result of events, and to see how he views Nakata.

The flow of the book is initially a little off, the chapters with Kafka are followed by flashbacks to 1944 and interviews with various people about a mysterious event. These parts have such a different feel to the core narrative that they can be a little off-putting, but as we see they really serve as an introduction to Nakata. Once those have been taken in the narrative is pretty straight forward, and even builds a certain tension as it gets on – switching back and forth between the two streams as events come to ahead, in a manner that mirrors a thriller.

Haruki Murakami is of course Japan’s most popular contemporary writer, and Kafka On The Shore is the latest of his novels to be published in English. His novels over the years have tended to fall into two categories, the ones which could be described to some degree as romantic drama, and those which are a form of quest, tending to have something a little unreal to their narrative. Kafka tends into the second category, as is probably obvious from Nakata’s ability to talk to cats alone. Additionally the characters encounter a range of manifestations and atmospheric anomalies.

While this is not the first time that Murakami has explored the life of a teenager, it perhaps is the first time that the character has been contemporary. Often his books are told from an adult looking back, even something like Norwegian Wood where the adult is only really at the start. This might seem a minor thing, but one actually does seem to be more conscious of the fact with Kafka. Particularly because with that Kafka has the most contemporary feel of Murakami’s novels, with more references to technology like mobile phones and PCs, or Radiohead and Prince.

With the presence of a library in Kafka On The Shore and in the novel Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World some have suggested that there is a direct connection. As Kafka progresses there are certain events which the determined might wish to read connections into, but there certainly isn’t an overwhelming and compelling connection. Though there is perhaps an interesting resonance between characters within Kafka On The Shore and the short story On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.

As a fan of Murakami I have read all of his novels, which are readily available in English. With that, for me Kafka On The Shore is an enjoyable read, even if one is conscious of the contemporary feel and to some degree of the different translator. Though perhaps curiously, with the distinct threads in the book I probably enjoyed the story of Nakata more than that of Kafka. Part of that could be that there were aspects of Kafka’s story that I would like to have seen more done with – for example the character Sakura could have had more of a presence, similarly with the boy named Crow, though there is of course a thin line given the role of characters within the whole.

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