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Onyx reviews: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

“A really strange turn of events. It started out weird and is getting even weirder as it goes along. Impossible to predict what’ll happen next.”

This line of dialog from Kafka on the Shore could describe the book itself. It begins when a boy who calls himself Kafka (the Czech word for “crow”) celebrates his fifteenth birthday by running away from his Tokyo home. When he was four, his mother abandoned the family, inexplicably taking his older adopted sister—but not him. Since then, his distant father has insisted that some day Kafka will, like Oedipus, kill his father and sleep with his mother and his sister.

Thus begins a dreamlike odyssey that could only come from the hands of Japanese surrealist Haruki Murakami. Armed with few provisions and limited cash, Kafka knows he must become the world’s toughest fifteen year old to survive. With no particular destination in mind, he takes a bus to the southern island of Shikoku. To avoid being pegged as a truant, he hangs out during the daytime in a private library run by a gender-confused hemophiliac named Oshima and operated by the tormented Miss Saeki, who once had a hit song called “Kafka on the Shore.” Kafka immerses himself in books and befriends Oshima, with whom he shares his story. Kafka is very much an adolescent, listening to the music of Prince, struggling with his awakening sexuality and trying to sort out the differences between maternal and romantic love.

In a seemingly convergent but parallel storyline, a man in his sixties is also on the run. As a boy during World War II, he was on a school field trip when all sixteen students unaccountably collapsed in a trance. Nakata was the only one who did not recover within a few hours. When he woke up weeks later, the former straight-A student’s memory was erased, an injury from which he never recovers. Illiterate and “dumb” (his own word) but otherwise happy, Nakata supplements his government subsidy by finding missing cats, a job facilitated by his ability to talk to them.

His stable life is upended when he encounters an evil man who steals cats’ souls to make a magic flute. The normally peaceful Nakata is goaded into an act of violence that mysteriously corresponds with another crime, linking him metaphorically with Kafka. When he tries to confess, a skeptical police officer sends him home. Nakata leaves his neighborhood for the first time, finding a steady stream of people willing to help him. He is a patient listener whose simplicity is endearing. However, strange things happen in his presence, including rains of mackerel and leeches.

Both Kafka and Nakata are on quests, feeling they are incomplete, having only half a shadow. Kafka sees his mother and sister in every woman of the appropriate age he meets. With the help of a truck driver named Hoshino—Nakata reminds him of his grandfather—Nakata wanders toward Shikoku as if guided by the hand of fate. His goal is the entrance stone mentioned in Miss Saeki’s lyric. He knows only that he must open and close the entrance at the right time without understanding why or how.

Kafka on the Shore is an intellectually profound adventure novel. Though its characters discuss Greek tragedy, the films of Truffaut, Beethoven, Kafka, the nature of literary metaphor, philosophy and Buddhism, the story is handled with a light, whimsical touch. Late in the book, the surreal and metaphysical threaten to take over and render the plot incomprehensible, but even then Murakami doesn’t lose his sense of humor and absurdity. A spiritual entity chooses to present himself to Hoshino as a pimp dressed like Colonel Sanders. “I was toying with the idea of Mickey Mouse, but Disney’s particular about the rights to their characters,” he says.

Not all of the book’s mysteries are resolved. A murderer is never identified. The reason for the incident of mass hysteria is never satisfactorily explained. The reader is left to imagine what really happens during certain events—are they hallucinations or metaphysical journies? At times it feels like a broader knowledge of philosophy and the arts might help understand what Murakami is trying to say.

Though the story is set in Japan, only a few minor elements make it particular to that society—a character’s affinity for eating eel, a cultural implication of Nakata’s illiteracy, and some formalities in greetings. The translator converts most idiomatic scenes into something accessible to western readers and wisely changes all monetary references to dollars. Even so, the translator’s chosen diction subtly reminds readers that the story takes place in another, vastly different land, which adds to the hallucinatory feeling of this metafictional journey.

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