I have a difficult relationship with the novels of Murakami Haruki, a kind of love/hate affair. Others either love him or hate him, and in either case make him Japan’s best selling novelist and one of the best selling novelists in the world. I discovered him in the late 90s in the Kinokuniya Book Store that used to be in Neutral Bay, a volume of short stories called The Elephant Vanishes. I read A Wild Sheep Chase and his other novels, and finished up with the Wind Up Bird Chronicle. This one, I knew as soon as I had finished it, was the greatest novel ever written. I don’t get that feeling very often, in fact only on four previous occasions. Then I read Sputnik Sweetheart, as good a book I thought, and then Kafka On the Shore, perhaps even better than the previous two.
So far I sound like a Murakami fan. But the trouble began when I tried to reread The Wind Up Bird Chronicle after a few years, and couldn’t. The first half was OK, but the second half seemed to repeat itself endlessly. And it was full of lost points and bizarre metaphors. I had previously tried Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance and South of the Border West of the Sun and found them forgettable. Now I tried Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973 and After Dark, and found all these putdownable. Next I attempted to reread Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and found it absurdly overcooked.
So what have we got here? Three books I loved on first reading. That’s something, I thought. And set down to reread Kafka On the Shore (2002 Shinchosha, 2005 Knopf).
Now, 436 pages later, I’ve found myself entranced to the very end. That’s rare. But I’m also confused, and have a lot of unanswered questions.These are all plot elements left unresolved in the book.
If Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker were metaphors, what were they metaphors of?
If a metaphor can be a fictional character, why is there nothing like a metaphor?
What was the entrance stone an entrance to?
Why were there no books, and no memories, in the place Kafka reaches in the forest?
What happened to Johnny Walker’s black dog who could speak to humans?
Was it related to the black cat Toro who could speak to Hoshino?
Was Miss Saeki Kafka’s mother?
If Miss Saeki composed Kafka on the Shore, who painted Kafka on the Shore?
How likely was it that student radicals would beat someone from another party to death?
What was the event that triggered Nakata’s loss of normality during the war?
Is Sakura Kafka’s sister? Or does he have an Oedipus Complex? What happens to her?
Why, I ask myself, can I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and not turn a hair when confronted by a white mouse with a pocket watch worried about his punctuality; or a bad tempered Queen of Hearts with the mentality of a serial killer? Why do Tweedledum and Tweedledee make perfect sense? I have no questions unanswered with the Alice books. They are about another world, a world where for some reason logic prevails.
Right away the Murakami books pose the problem of whom I’m dealing with. I don’t understand Japanese so all the books I’ve read of Murakami’s are in translation. Kafka on the Shore was translated by Philip Gabriel. Is my questioning to be addressed to Gabriel or Murakami? I read somewhere that Murakami, who himself has translated many works into Japanese, doesn’t believe in literal translation. He has encouraged his translators to make what perhaps should be called adaptations. Has something been lost between Japanese content and American English adaptation? In any case I am convinced Philip Gabriel is a great English writer.
It seems too obvious to say that Murakami in this novel is just criticising the point of view that everything must make sense, everything must be explained, by leaving plot details unresolved. That explanation is what fiction does and life doesn’t, so writing about life leaves you with loose ends, and it’s good to accept them and think about them. Life definitely isn’t a detective story and who done it and what was done both remain unanswered questions. Loose ends? You have to live with them. It’s just I’m not used to them in novels.
Kafka on the Shore starts off like a Strugatsky brothers SF novel, with mysterious events following the visit of UFOs to planet earth (or B-52s on a secret mission). That peters out in a lot of reported red tape as the visit is examined by government experts who come to no conclusion. Then we meet the two main characters and their respective plights.
The book is constructed of parallel narratives of these two main characters, Kafka and Nakata, where we are invited to look for connections and consequent meanings. This is a technique often found in thrillers and best sellers and creates an amount of narrative suspense, as it does here. Yet the actual content of Kafka is not primarily narrative at all, but philosophical. Murakami is and always has been a perceptive writer, and his 10th novel shows quite a bit of wisdom about life and how it should be lived. Kafka on the Shore could equally well have been written as a musing on fate and responsibility. Even the name Kafka suggests the possibility of lack of free will, or determinism, portrayed so hauntingly in The Castle and The Trial. The narrative tension seems just a con trick to hold our attention while Murakami gets his points across. Is this justified?
To my confusion though Murakami remains a fiction writer. He writes plainly and engagingly about ordinary people, even simple and uneducated ones, in such a way to accept their view of the world. We as readers are anchored in Murakami’s world by his insistent use of brand names. And everything is always explained in a Murakami book. In Kafka on the Shore the most abstract metaphysical concept is explained for Kafka (and us) by Oshima the librarian. But the events, OK, the metaphors, are not. That’s the readers’ job.
The fact remains that the book has the feel of a labyrinthine Ross Macdonald thriller, where events that took place 20 years ago shed unexpected light on the present. Has Murakami, in his desire to intrigue his readers and keep them reading, thrown in too many mysterious events for him to explain? Do we really need two WWII solders in a time warp to guide Kafka to a mysterious village where he meets a ghost and can’t find a book? The novel seems like one of those thrillers where the murderer is unmasked on the last page and is revealed to be insane, despite all his cunning plotting, and that’s all you get for motive.
Perhaps Kafka on the Shore is a kind of Egyptian Book of the Dead, a guide to salvation for lost souls, set in modern, Westernised Japan, where good and evil spirits still walk and have a magic reality alongside virtual reality, fast foods and the most restrained stoicism on earth.
It’s a Greek tragedy we’re involved in, but also a coming of age story and a murder mystery (the murder is never solved). But think of the Greek tragedy. Kafka is compared to Oedipus. But what is his problem, the problem that sets the plot in motion and is resolved somewhat arbitrarily at the end? His father doesn’t pay enough attention to him, and his mother abandoned the family when he was four, eleven years ago. Hardly the stuff of Greek tragedy. Other than that he’s a spoiled kid who has everything he could possibly want. In those ancient plays you can leave the solution open and it adds to the impact of the play. Who killed Oedipus’ father, Oedipus, or Apollo? Asking that question is the point of the play, not answering it. If you answer it you become wiser than Sophokles and the Sphinx combined, and that’s not a good idea at all.
Murakami’s Kafka is an engaging mix of philosophical enquiry, attractive characters, intense sadness, humour and the intrusion of magic into reality. In my world, any book you can enjoy a second reading of is worth a third, and a reading by anyone else who can read. Those who can’t read should try the audio book. This book is not a classic, nor a throwaway. It kicks and struggles a lot to avoid those categorisations, and despite it’s feel of being a first draft will be read as long as it succeeds in that avoidance.
Lost in Space
Murakami’s previous book, Sputnik Sweetheart (1999 Kodansha, 2001 Knopf), was also translated by Philip Gabriel. It is about the state of being bereft, that is, experiencing bereavement and loss. But, Murakami like, it examines this quandary by means of a missing person story, with the hero a kind of Lew Archer figure much of the time. The hero is unnamed but is referred to twice in quoted documents as K. Could we be reading a later instalment in the adventures of Kafka Tamura, now ten years older and wiser? Kafka went back to school: perhaps he became a teacher?
K’s best friend is Sumire (Violet). They are incredibly close to each other, each the other’s best friend. Both are solitary people, the difference is that K loves Sumire, Sumire does’t love K. That’s love as in sexual desire. K goes through agonies, being so close, yet yearning for closeness of another kind. Then Sumire falls in love, with an older, married woman known as Miu (we never learn her name. She’s a foreigner, a Korean). In turn Miu cannot return Sumire’s love. She is not only heterosexual, but has been traumatised by an event in the past in which she saw herself (perhaps) making love to a stranger, someone she disliked. It seemed objective: Miu watched through binoculars while stranded on an amusement park Ferris Wheel while someone she thought herself carried out a series of gross, disgusting sexual acts with this man. She felt disassociated, as though she was in another reality. After it was over Miu felt only half present in her present. Half of her was lost or dead, she decided. Her hair had turned completely white. Perhaps she had only half a shadow, like Nakata in Kafka on the Shore. Miu’s inability to respond to Sumire in turn causes Sumire to experience trauma. Sumire feels she needs to go in search of the missing part of Miu to rectify the situation, and disappears while on a holiday in Greece (perhaps on Kalymnos, where George Johnson and Charmian Clift lived in the 50s). And K is left bereft.
The Freudians will love this. Trauma, like a stone thrown into a pool, ripples out and affects not just the victim, but those who know that victim. But a case study this is not. Murakami is writing about the process of knowing oneself, one of the important purposes of living. One of the things each person has to deal with in this process is unreality, fantasy, neurosis, or simply fear. Otherwise known as alternative reality. One of the strengths that make this possible to survive is the ability to reach out and connect meaningfully with others. We read abut the three main characters and their respective success with this.
The book reminds me a lot of that other exploration of unreality set on a Greek island, John Fowles’ 1965 novel The Magus. Another precursor more obviously to do with effects of trauma is Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In both books (I loved them both), as in Sputnick Sweetheart, the search for self knowledge interferes with ‘reality’. There are also similarities with Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock, time warps, missing girls, alternate realities and more. (Post modern metafiction was called ‘ambiguous’ in the 60s).
Along with the usual loose ends of a Murakami novel (what happens to Miu I’d like to know), this novel has an uncharacteristic glimmer of hope at the end. K tells his story to a disturbed schoolboy, a kleptomaniac, one of his pupils. The fact of opening up, of being direct about his feelings, is followed by a late night phone call from the missing Sumire. She has forgotten all about Miu and seems the way she was at the start of the story. Could this be real, or just a delusion? And could Sumire possibly be Miu’s missing half?
Mmm, says Murakami. I wonder.
Sputnik Sweetheart has wonderful, believable characters, a compelling plot, and enough wisdom for a year of calendar quotes. It was worth the second read, and may get several more before I’m done. Just how much like Laika Sumire, Miu and K are, and you and I and Murakami, I don’t know, but I’m thinking about it. Laika had a long wait for someone to come look after her, and all she could see was stars. Who knows what stars mean to a dog? What happens to cats when they climb trees but don’t come down? (Lewis Carroll could answer that one. He knew a bit about wells too, another Murakami theme).
So far, two compellingly readable novels that give the impression they each have lots of good ideas thrown carelessly aside, and a nagging doubt that that might be Murakami’s point.
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