THE JAPANESE NOVELIST, HARUKI MURAKAMI (1949 -) IS A LITERARY PHENOMENON. His novel, Norwegian Wood, a moving love story, sold four million copies in Japan. Both the Japanese original and English translation of his latest work, 1Q84 (a multi-lingual pun on Orwell), had queues snaking around bookshops in London and New York at midnight, drawing parallels with the Harry Potter phenomenon.
A bar and jazz-club owner before bursting onto the literary scene, Murakami weaves a kaleidoscope of literary and cultural references in all his books. He alludes to scientific theories of a multiverse or series of interlocking alternative universes, which makes one question ‘What is reality?’
Kafka on the Shore (published in 2002) tells the story of two main protagonists, in alternating chapters. The first protagonist is the eponymous hero, the fifteen-year old Kafka Tamura, as he styles himself. His father, a wealthy Tokyo sculptor, prophesises that Kafka is destined to murder him and sleep with his mother and sister. The added poignancy is that Kafka has been abandoned by his mother and sister at the age of three. The father destroys all photographs in the house and Kafka has no idea what they look like, if they are alive or where they live. Kafka has an emanation or shadow, ‘the boy called crow’ (‘Kafka’ means ‘crow’ in Czech), who urges Kafka for much of the book to be ‘the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world’.
The other, parallel hero is an old man, Nakata. As a boy evacuee during World War II, from Tokyo to the province of Shikoku, Nakata is brain damaged during a mushroom picking school trip in a nearby forest. The children and teacher see a mysterious flash of light in the sky and lose consciousness. The other children recover but Nakata remains in a coma and is sent back to Tokyo. On regaining consciousness Nakata says he became ‘a shadow’. This is a significant parallel with Kafka’s ‘the boy called crow’. Nakata loses his ability to read and write but finds he can communicate with cats. This leads to a job with the municipality as catcher of stray cats. There are delightful passages of Nakata’s conversations with his neighbourhood cats, which carry echoes of Soseki’s talkative cat protagonist, in I Am a Cat. Nakata befriends a Siamese called Mimi who has a proclivity for quoting Puccini operas.
The centre of the book, in so far as one can locate an epicentre at all, is a macabre and hallucinatory killing by – or perhaps not by – Nakata of ‘Johnnie Walker’, who may or may not be the whisky label and may or may not be Kafka’s father, to prevent a cat-killing orgy by ‘Johnnie Walker’, who has a penchant for tearing out the still pulsing hearts of the cats and using their souls to make flutes. Nakata goes on the run and is picked up by a long-distance lorry driver, Hoshino. Nakata reminds Hoshino of his own grandfather. The two travel to the provincial city of Takamatsu in Shikoku.
Meanwhile, to escape the Oedipal curse of his father, Kafka too embarks on a kind of pilgrimage – echoes of the haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s journey to the North – of his own. He travels from Tokyo, his home town to Takamatsu, Shikoku. Here, Kafka is welcomed in a private library by the librarian, Oshima, a transgender gay figure, and Miss Saeki, the manager, who may or may not be Kafka’s mother with whom Kafka eventually has a sexual relationship. The motif of the shadow is once again played out in the characters of Miss Saeki, who is a nebulous presence, and Oshima, who transcends gender classification. Oshima is Kafka’s intellectual and emotional mentor and it is in the forest where Oshima has a cottage that Kafka has an epiphanic reckoning.
Throughout the book there are numerous references to music. The interweaving of plots, encounters and people resembles a Bach fugue where ambiguities are frequently unresolved and thereby haunting. Kafka and Nakata never meet but their destines are inexplicably intertwined. We never find out if Miss Saeki is Kafka’s mother, whether Nakata or Kafka himself killed his father, what Osima’s true sex is, whether there really was a Johnnie Walker cat-killer.
What particularly appealed to me is that Komura Memorial Library, where Kafka works and lives briefly, is described as being dedicated to the works of tanka and haiku writers, immediately evoking literary allusions to Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki. There are some tantalising passages about the library being used by haiku poets.
Another unforgettable aspect of this novel is a parallel alternative reality in the forest where a colony of beings live in detachment from the world – a kind of zombie-Avalon. Kafka wanders into this hinter world and faces the prospect of being swallowed into its shadowy existence. He returns, determined to face the aftermath of his father’s murder.
There are no neat resolutions to the parallel strands of Kafka and Nakata’s stories. What one is left with is a mesmerising sense of atmosphere, as both plot and characters dissolve, a haunting sense of claustrophobia and limitless possibility and unresolved contradictions. Murakami is sympathetic to his characters: even quite wicked ones like Johnnie Walker have a kind of insane pathos about them.
– Golden Langur