The stereotypical reaction of Occidental visitors to Japan is disorientation – a response prompted not just by the strangeness of an alien culture but by the uncanny mix of the familiar and the superficially bizarre. The illuminated symbols of global brands rub shoulders with signs and gadgets whose purpose seems unfathomable. Haruki Murakami, a superstar author in his native country, ratchets up the disconnect in his fictional Japan. The characters may well eat pasta and whistle along to Italian arias but they also sit at the bottom of a well for days on end and can converse with cats. This mixture of the mundane and the outlandish made what is perhaps his greatest work, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, so beguiling. Grounded in the everyday, his characters experience the strangest events with the equanimity of dreamers. This magical calmness extends to readers, who begin to accept the oddest of developments with a docile smile.
Despite its prodigious length (weighing in at over 500 pages), there is little space in Murakami?s new novel, Kafka on the Shore, to establish his protagonist’s normality before plunging him into the extraordinary. In the opening chapter we have the self-named Kafka Tamura talking about running away from home with what we assume is his alter ego, Crow. Crow urges Kafka to be strong, to become the toughest 15-year-old in the world. Kafka certainly needs all the fortitude he can find – his mother and sister deserted him when he was four years old. And his father, whom we never met (or do we?), is an egotistical, world-famous sculptor who has never shown his son affection. Led by instinct he travels to the city of Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, where he eventually finds refuge in a library overseen by the epicene Oshima and the beautiful but ineffably sad Ms Saeki.
Imbricated with the chapters describing Kafka’s flight is a parallel story that begins with a classified US Military report on a UFO incident that occurred in rural Japan during World War Two. A teacher describes to her interviewer taking her class on a mushroom-picking trip to the countryside. After the appearance of an unidentified silver object in the sky, the sixteen children fall into a trance-like state. Within a few hours, all the children are awake and seemingly unaffected by their experience. All except Satoru Nakata, who is transferred to a Tokyo hospital. When he awakes several weeks later, his memory has been erased and his mental development is forever stalled.
In modern day Tokyo, the simple-minded Nakata supplements his government subsidy with a sideline in finding cats for neighbours. He’s helped in this chore by his ability to talk with them, a gift presumably related to his childhood ordeal. Searching for a lost cat, he meets a Siamese cat, who informs Nakata that a sinister figure is throwing stray felines into a sack for unknown but presumably sinister reasons. Nakata hunkers down in the long grass and awaits the appearance of the catnapper.
The routes of these apparently separate stories – that of adolescent Kafka and the sexagenarian Satoru Nakata – of course crisscross at various plot chicanes, although the two characters never meet (at least I think they don’t – such is the ethereal ambience of some portions of the book I was sometimes not quite sure who or what was the actual figure behind their supernatural manifestation.) Yet it is as much mythology and legend that yoke these characters’ fate together.
We discover that Kafka’s father put a curse on his son that he would sleep with his mother and sister and kill his father. With this Oedipal predication in mind, it seems risky for Kafka to share a bed with a girl around his sister’s age. And his relationship with the fiftysomething Ms Saeki, who appears in different forms in Kafka’s makeshift bedroom in the library, is definitely something that would make the Greeks shuffle in their seats in dire anticipation.
Another legend is evoked when Nakata tracks down the cat killer and finds him to be the literal embodiment of the Johnnie Walker logo from the whisky bottle. Walker kills cats, eats their inner organs, and uses their souls to create a magical flute. (At this point, my complaisant smile was gradually being usurped by a crinkled brow). Walker then asks Nakata to kill him, a request which Nakata reluctantly complies with to stop the demonic Walker from eating the hearts of any more moggies.
The description of Walker’s stabbing comes after a Kafka chapter, in which he comes to in a municipal park, his T-shirt covered in blood with no idea how he got there.
The TV news later announces that Kafka’s father has been found stabbed to death in his home.
Yeats’s phrase “In Dreams Bring Begin Responsibility” is mulled over by Kafka and Oshima as they ponder the possibility that somehow Nakata has acted as a proxy to carry out Kafka’s repressed desires. And the Tale of the Genji, the early-eleventh-century Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki, is also namechecked, recounting as it does the dreamed-of murder of a rival that is fulfilled in ‘real life’. Everything is up for grab, and therein lies my problem with this sprawling novel.
One of the pitfalls of magical realism – a genre that Murakami might be said to practice – is that when anything can happen, when it does the reader is just as likely shrug her shoulders as clasp her mouth in surprise. In Kafka on the Shore, I had the unusual experience – for a Murakami novel – of forcing myself to frog march through the last 150 pages or so. I was suffering from a fatigue of the fantastic. For, in addition to those events and themes I have touched upon above, the novel also drags in KFC’s Colonel Sanders transfigured as a Takamatsu pimp, an “Entrance Stone” that’s a portal to another dimension, sardines falling from the sky, and two lost World War soldiers guarding the path to a netherworld Shangri-La.
In the end, deluged by this cascade of impossibilities, the exasperated reader is likely to howl, “Enough already!”
Extract from Kafka on the Shore available from The Paris Review.
Kafka on the Shore is published in the UK by the Harvill Press