Haruki Murakami’s tenth novel features a cat finder who talks to felines, a pimp named Col. Sanders and an assassin who dresses up like Johnnie Walker. If this sounds a bit like a wax museum created by someone who spent too much of the 1960s eating brownies, then you’re obviously new to Murakami’s fictional universe.
Over the past decade, Murakami has coaxed a growing number of readers into the neon-lit interiors of his mind. Since 1994 there have been two story collections, a love story, a reissue of his cult classic Norwegian Wood, a documentary work of nonfiction about the gas attacks on the Tokyo underground and one tremendous novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Japan’s equivalent of Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
Unlike the Bronx-born DeLillo, Murakami’s worldview is that of an existentialist addicted to play. Or as he said in a recent interview, “There are no answers in my world, but there is kindness.”
Indeed, while Murakami’s characters are often caught up in events larger than themselves—earthquakes, terrorist attacks—it is often person-to-person kindness that redeems them from the abyss of their own melancholy, as in the cotton-candy sweet Sputnik Sweetheart, about a man in love with a girl struggling to connect while a famous satellite goes into orbit.
Kafka on the Shore is Murakami’s biggest novel in a decade and it comes more from the Sputnik vein than some of his darker, woollier fictions. Originally published in Japan in 2002, several years after the devastating Kobe earthquake, Kafka on the Shore feels like a return to the novelist’s most whimsical métier.
The plot here takes the shape of a teetering double-helix. Half of the action follows the life of Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old who has renamed himself before going on the run from his sculptor father, who murders cats and uses their souls to make flutes. Kafka has another reason for leaving: He is not too keen about a prophesy that says he will kill his dad (and sleep with his mother and his sister).
And so like Oedipus before him, Kafka leaves town, taking a bus out of Tokyo, a boat to an island and his feet to the Komura library, where he encounters a beautiful woman who becomes both his actual (and fantasy) lover. Kafka is also mentored by an effete young librarian named Oshima, who ferries him to a cabin far off in a forest that has mysterious qualities.
The helix’s second strand begins as a top secret U.S. government document, an X-file if you will, one that describes how wartime evacuees looking for food in the Shikoku Mountains after World War II saw what appeared to be a UFO. And then they lost consciousness.
All of the victims turned out fine, excepting a boy named Nakata who languished in a coma for several weeks. He then woke up, said the words “not very bright” and discovered he could talk to cats.
Fast forward half a century and Kafka’s father, posed as Johnnie Walker, convinces Nakata to kill him. This has repercussions for Kafka, who believes he will be blamed for his father’s murder. His retreat into the mountains becomes a retreat into a semi-real nether world, some place on the shoreline of what is real and what is imaginary. Nakata, meanwhile, follows a desire to move westward, which takes him to Shikoku, where the novel’s two narratives become one.
A one-time jazz club owner with a love of music as front and center as Nick Hornby’s, Murakami is clearly a fan of improvisation. Kafka on the Shore can be read like one long middle-of-the-night trumpet solo that noodles as far out onto the branch of believability as sound can go. And then, by keeping us distracted, Murakami makes the branch disappear.
Although there is more to Kafka on the Shore than this sleight of hand, Murakami is smart to place this disappearing act front and center. After all, this is a story about the fuzzy boundary between what happens in our minds and what happens in the real world—and how easily one can pass between the two.
The only place where this can happen so seamlessly is in literature. In this sense, Kafka on the Shore is a book about storytelling, about myths and about our desire to become part of them when we in fact already embody them. Talking to the spirit projection of his mother, Kafka talks himself into a corner thinking about this:
“We’re not metaphors.”
“‘I know,’ I say. ‘But metaphors help eliminate what separates you and me.’ A faint smile comes to her as she looks up at me. ‘That’s the oddest pickup line I’ve ever heard.’”
‘There’re a lot of odd things going on—but I feel like I’m slowly getting closer to the truth.’
‘Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth?’”
Only in the fiction of Murakami can this metaphysical game of “Who’s on First” be so fun, so not irritating. It’s why people keep coming back to his books, and back and back and back. For Murakami novices, Kafka on the Shore would also be a good place to start.