Friday, November 14, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Since I plan on covering Haruki Murakami's most recent publication, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, for next week, I figured I would finally read another one of the Japanese author's works that has been sitting on my book shelf for a few years, Kafka on the Shore. Having only read two other books by Murakami, I am still not quite sure what I should expect from them, though I was sure I would recognize a few familiar themes and hopefully not feel completely lost.

The Situation: Kafka (not his real first name) Tamura has just turned 15 years old and has decided to run away from home. He hopes to escape the Oedipal curse his father put on him, while also looking for the mother that abandoned him and his father, taking his sister with her. He doesn't have a real plan, but ends up in a private library in Takamatsu. After befriending Oshima, a young man who works at the library, and his boss Ms. Saeki, a beautiful and classy older woman with troubles of her own, Kafka ends up living in the guest room of the quiet library, while also working as Oshima's assistant. Meanwhile, an old man named Mr. Nakata has found part-time work finding lost cats for their owners. Due to a strange accident when he was only a boy, Nakata can't read or write, but gets a check every month from the government for his disability. And what makes him so good at finding lost cats is his ability to talk to them. But while on his latest search, he ends up coming into contact with a strange man, somehow linking his own fate with Kafka's.

The Problem: Kafka is already worried that someone will figure out that he is a 15 year-old runaway and will attempt to send him back home. So when he finds out his father has been murdered, he knows authorities will begin looking for him in earnest, even if he isn't a suspect. Meanwhile, the story takes a turn for Nakata as well as he must now travel somewhere, but he doesn't know exactly where, and do something, but he doesn't know exactly what. All he can say is that he'll know the place and what he needs to do when he gets there. Much like Kafka, he feels that fate is moving him along, as if he has no free will and is simply destined to do whatever will happen next, even if that means possibly hurting someone.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Japan. Like other Murakami novels I have read, there are familiar themes such as strange dreams, cooking, pseudo time travel, weird sex, curious animals, and even a male protagonist on a journey to find something, although he isn't exactly sure what that might be. Neither of the protagonists are. Kafka isn't exactly sure what to search for when looking for someone to be either his mother or his sister. And Nakata will only know what he is looking for once he finds it. The story switched back and forth between the two as the odd chapters are Kafka's story, and the even chapters are Nakata's story. The two different stories do turn out to be linked, but the two characters never actually meet. Also, the Oedipus complex comes into play in Kafka's story as he badly wants to avoid fulfilling the curse his father placed on him before he ran away from home. There is some historical fiction included as well, as some of the early even chapters tell of the accident during World War II that caused Nakata to behave the way he does now. He only speaks of himself in the third person, can't read or write, and somehow has the ability to talk to cats as well as humans. The actual accident remains a mystery. People only know that Nakata was once an incredibly bright little boy, and then, after the accident, it was like his mind had been wiped clean.

My Verdict: In general, books by Murakami make me tired, and this one was no exception. Also, at the end, I was once again left with more questions than answers. Sure, things get resolved, but not nearly enough, at least not for me. The story itself is actually really good. Two men, at different stages in life, set off on seemingly completely different journeys, but those two journeys end up linked and even intersect for a little bit. One thing about Murakami: as exhausting as he may be, he is never predictable. Even if you guess that everything will work itself out, there is no way anyone could possibly guess exactly how that will come about. With Murakami, the possibilities are endless, and he may or may not give a full explanation about how exactly stuff happens. If you're a fan of Murakami, then I am sure you'll enjoy this book as well. If you don't get too hung up on loose endings or suspension of disbelief, then you'll be able to enjoy this book just fine.

Favorite Moment: When Nakata employs the help of a smart and well-off Siamese cat to get answers from a dumber street cat that is difficult to talk to. 

Favorite Character: There are actually quite a few great characters in this book. It is a rare thing for me to have a  hard time picking only one. But I will go ahead and choose Hoshino, the young truck driver that decides on a whim to abandon his job and help old Mr. Nakata on his journey. 

Recommended Reading: To follow up this book, I would recommend Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Parts of it will feel kind of familiar, but it has its own bizarre storyline with fascinating characters and events. 

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