There’s a kind of rough path trodden down through the forest, mostly following the lie of the land, but improved here and there with a few flat rocks laid down like stepping stones … even if the weeds grow over it, you can still follow the path.
Just about, Mr. Murakami—just about. The path taken by this book is most certainly obscured by weeds, and at times one might well be tempted to give up on such an unsatisfactory route, but Murakami’s undoubted storytelling ability and his cast of quirky, unlikely characters manage to hold his readers’ attention even through the weediest patches though they be many and rank.
The Kafka of the title is not Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis —nor, despite weighty hints in that direction, does he bear any convincing relation to that writer. He is, rather, Kafka Tamura, our teenage protagonist who has run away from home to escape the malign influence of his father who has laid an Oedipal curse on him that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother, and, for good measure, his sister too. Abandoned young by his mother, who left home with his older sister, Kafka’s journey becomes, in part, a quest to find the rest of his family, and, it seems, to fulfil his father’s curse: whenever he meets a woman of an age to be either his mother or his sister he tries to sleep with her. His story is told in alternating chapters with that of Mr Nakata, an old man who has been a bit ‘simple’ since a mysterious childhood accident which deprived him of the ability to read and write and gave him the gift of being able to talk to cats. Their stories are rather beautifully united by images which resonate from one strand of narrative to the other.
For example, Kafka is given work and shelter at the Komura Memorial Library and from the moment he meets Miss Saeki, the library director (just about the right age to be his mother) he finds himself fascinated by her, particularly by her smile which is like ‘a small, sunny spot, the special patch of sunlight you find only in some remote secluded place.’ It was in just such a place that Nakata’s ‘accident’ occurred, and some hint of a connection between Miss Saeki and Nakata is delicately foreshadowed. Images of light, wind, mushrooms, doors open and closed, dogs, cats, and fish are all elements which play into the patterns of both stories: the reflection of these images from Nakata to Kafka and back again is, at times, handled with the kind of subtlety that has earned Murakami his formidable reputation as one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary surrealist writers.
As the book progresses, however, the reader learns to treasure these moments of grace, aware that at any moment she may be confronted with paragraphs or even pages where the prose crashes along with the subtlety and poise of a wounded hippo. The two problems that detract from the book’s impact as a whole are its deeply unsatisfactory ending, and the pretentious posturing we must endure on the way. This may seem an unduly harsh assessment of a journey rich in inventive fantasy and peopled by, among others, Jack Daniels, Colonel Sanders, and an engaging cast of talking cats. Fish and leeches rain from the sky; time displays a flexibility that allows the past to seep vividly into the present; ghosts return to haunt and seduce. But Murakami is not content simply to write a good story and manages to spoil the one he has by weighting it down with a burden of deep meaningfulness and metaphysicality that it simply cannot sustain. We are told not just once, but repeatedly, ‘It’s as Goethe said: everything’s a metaphor.’ (Bringing Goethe into the matter so gratuitously is another issue.) ‘“This stone’s a pistol?” “Only in the metaphorical sense.”‘
Early on, we are warned that we are about to experience a ‘violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm.’ And we do. The relentless obsession with symbols is shared by all three main characters in Kafka’s story: Kafka himself; Oshima, the transgender, transvestite, homosexual, haemophiliac librarian who acts as his friend and mentor; and Miss Saeki, the beautiful, mysterious director of the library who can’t escape her past. Indeed, the voices of Kafka, Oshima and Miss Saeki become virtually indistinguishable in their tedious fascination with their own profundity. The following exchange is typical of the kind of wearisome material that more rigorous editing might have spared us:
I bite my lip for a while, then ask, “Don’t you ever think about getting out of that container?”
“You mean leaving my physical body?”
“Symbolically? Or for real?”
“This is what I think: If we reverse the outer shell and the essence - in other words, consider the outer shell the essence and the essence only the shell - our lives might be a whole lot easier to understand.”
Who speaks that last line? Does it even matter? As the voices meld to form an extended but curiously unproductive and shallow meditation on the nature of metaphor, the story gradually flattens out and we are left to blankly consider lines as truly awful as ‘High above us the wind rustles symbolically.’ How very metaphysical.
The story of Nakata, the simple-minded cat-finder, shows considerably more finesse in this regard, with much sharper individualisation of the characters in this half of the novel. Nakata’s voice is distinctive by virtue of his habit of referring to himself in the third person, and the many cats ‘who’ cross his path are also characterised with an engaging degree of variety and humour. Through an eccentricity of translation, the voice of Hoshino, a helpful truck driver who assists Nakata on his journey, is distinguishable for the peculiarly dated idiom of his language, which includes such exclamations as ‘cripes!’, ‘man alive!’, and ‘jeez!’ Hoshino is, in many ways, the most interesting character in the novel: the only one who changes as a result of his experiences—the only one who shows any signs of development over the course of the narrative. It is a shame, then, that he is the victim of some of Murakami’s laziest writing with some inexcusable short cuts taken to indicate the broadening of his horizons and changing perspective on the world.
The title’s use of ‘Kafka’ to engage an audience who might otherwise not have reached for this book is a shrewd marketing ploy, given the recent success of The Da Vinci Code, The Dante Club, Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Jane Austen Book Club. So, we’ve got Kafka, Goethe gets a mention, as do Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Chekov, Aristotle…the list goes on through the canons of both western and Japanese literature. The name-checking is relentless but somehow appropriate to the library trio in their metaphorical musings. However, the effect of transferring this tediously referential style of writing from the library to the life of the rough-and-ready Hoshino is not a happy one: the leaden insertion of passages of philosophy and musicology into his story are a painfully obvious, vain attempt to insinuate a degree of intellectual depth by the most superficial means. Hoshino’s changing perspective on the world is improbably accelerated by a series of instructive encounters which hasten the awakening of his cultural sensitivities. The first of these transformative moments occurs during a visit to a prostitute who pauses for breath (between other activities) to share a few thoughts on Henri Bergson and to deliver a short lecture on Hegelian philosophy. Later, a coffee shop owner needs no persuasion at all to launch into a dissertation on the subject of the life and work of Beethoven and Haydn. The expansion of Hoshino’s world view is completed when he chances upon a Francois Truffaut retrospective at the cinema which leads him to ponder his purpose in life as he finds himself appreciating ‘how suggestively the characters’ inner worlds were portrayed.’ Such delicacy is a far cry from Murakami’s blunt signposting. ‘Jeez Louise!’ as Hoshino himself exclaims.
There is a statement of artistic purpose offered in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion which declares ‘Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ It is the promise of a master storyteller who will eventually weave every thread into its rightful place, creating a satisfying unity from the disparate elements of a sprawling narrative. Unfortunately we are given no such promise in Kafka on the Shore. On the contrary, Murakami’s weed-clogged path which began this review takes a decidedly inconclusive turn a few sentences later: ‘Like someone excitedly relating a story only to find the words petering out, the path gets narrower the further I go, the undergrowth taking over. Beyond a certain point it’s hard to tell if it’s really a path or something that just vaguely resembles one. Eventually it’s completely swallowed up in a sea of ferns.’ This obliteration of the forest trail is an apt description of the conclusion of this book. We have followed Nakata and Kafka on their convoluted and seemingly predestined journeys, no matter how improbable. As the book progresses and their paths converge, we await the resolution of the many small mysteries with which these five hundred pages are strewn. And then it stops. There is no possibility of ‘giving away’ anything about the ending in this review because, like the track in the forest, the story is swallowed up and we never discover what becomes of it. There is the potential for a good, though unfinished, story in Kafka on the Shore, played out by a creative, idiosyncratic cast of characters, but it is a story much shorter than the five hundred pages occupied by the existing novel - and whether it is worth the enormous effort of weeding away the metaphorical ferns is not entirely certain. Perhaps my quarrel is a difference of opinion best captured by the character of Miss Saeki. Also a writer, like her creator Murakami, she pays little attention to the principles of order and completion promised by authors like Ondaatje. To Kafka she explains that ‘the book didn’t have any conclusion, and nobody wants to read a book that doesn’t have one. For me, though, having no conclusion seemed just fine.’ Whereas for me, it didn’t.
Mary Carr is a DPhil student in English Literature at Balliol College. She writes on medieval and renaissance poetry.