I am sure many hardcore Murakami fans will swear by the magic realism and surreal feel of his novel, Kafka on the Shore.
And it sure has a touch of the bizarre and the other worldly.
Kafka on the Shore starts with a 15 year old boy deciding to runaway from his father to live on his own under the pseudonym, Kafka Tamura. The novel than traces his journey where he meets other characters such as Sakura who is a hair dresser and who he thinks might be his sister. Then he stumbles on a job in the library that he had visited and finds a home there. At the library, he meets Oshima, who is the assistant, and the owner, Miss Saeki, who has her own melancholic back story.
Parallelly, the novel touches upon a curious incident that happened in the Yamanashi Prefecture where a group of children suddenly became unconsciously. It then focuses on one of those students, Mr. Nakata, who after the accident lost the ability to read and write but could mysteriously talk to cats. Consequently, he was the cat finder of his area in Nakano where he stayed.
Talking to cats is just one in the series of bizarre things to pop up in the novel.
The reader sees the how Mr. Nakata happens to meet a cat stealer posing as Johnnie Walker and what he does to the cats.
Then Mr. Nakata goes on a search for a mysterious entrance stone and hitchhikes with a truck driver who is jolly and who sticks with the former till the end.
Coming back to Mr Kafka Tamura, he finds himself in some trouble. But gets out with some luck. He also finds himself in love with the owner of the library. And many more bizarre things hit him as well.
The most loved part of Kafka on the Shore for me was the brilliant literary connections throughout the story from the name Kafka itself to Oedipus Rex’s prophecy colouring Tamura’s life to the literary talks that Kafka and Oshima have such as about Natsume Soseki’s short story, The Miner.
Then there is the setting of the library itself that was enchanting. It would be brilliant to actually be living in one.
The surrealism is present throughout the story and is heightened at the end when the past and the present dissolve and mesh with each other. Slowly, Mr. Nakata’s mission wraps up and the prophecy about Tamura unravels which slowly and abnormally leads Tamura to realise what he wants to do and at the end he comes to a conclusion of what he wants next. This is one magic realist bildungsroman!
The overwhelming presence of fate in the story makes me think of Hardy’s novels and how fate is omniscient there as well. In Kafka on the Shore too all the characters somehow meet each other as if some figure was using them as puppets, holding their strings and that they were playing a part in that figure’s story.
The one downside was Miss Saeki’s description through Tamura’s eyes. She was depicted as an idealised figure who was living in the past due to her erstwhile tragic love story. She was this mysterious figure who did not have much substance apart from being a fantasy for Tamura and having her tragic back story.
Was this deliberately done? I do not know.
However, for me, she seemed like a figure in those Elizabethan love sonnets that were idealised and unattainable.
Another downside was how the story was peppered with these so called cultured references to art. I obviously love the intertextual literary references and I lapped them all. Even in terms of music with its references to Beethoven and Schubert and in terms of movies, Truffaut’s films, it seems as if Murakami was pitching high culture above everything else. The only pop culture references were the music that Tamura listens to from Radiohead to Beatles etc. Even that had a touch of the snobbish. For someone who absolutely detests this kind of showing off and who believes that pop culture is as important as this so called high culture, these constant references were a downer. It reminded me of how T.S. Eliot would pepper his poems with references to whole of the canonical English literature and make its reading utterly difficult and dense for the readers.
Apart from that, Kafka on the Shore with its many eccentric and unique characters is an engaging read. The interconnections and the magic realist incidents that Murakami draws throughout are spell binding.