Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Kafka on the Shore,” is an engaging and uniquely metaphysical spectacle. His expansive imagination, uniquely unfettered even by today’s postmodern standards, is in full effect. Readers will find themselves hopelessly immersed in the story and all of its electric weirdness.
The story follows, in alternate chapters, the trials of Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata, two separate but inexplicably connected characters. Kafka is a 15-year-old runaway from Tokyo who desperately tries to escape a horrific Oedipal prophecy his father has always believed he will fulfill. On the other end, Satoru Nakata is an illiterate, ostensibly senile old man who lost his memory and ability to read after a childhood incident in which he and a group of his classmates mysteriously collapsed and lost consciousness on a class trip. He lives alone, supported by a government subsidy, but supplements his rather meager income by finding cats for his neighbors. The accident granted him the ability to communicate with felines.
“Kafka on the Shore” may be deeply metaphysical, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Quotes from Hegel and Bergman get thrown around, but only between blowjobs by a prostitute who answers to her pimp, Colonel Sanders. Along with profound musings about the nature of dreams and the unconscious, old men talk with cats, leeches fall from the sky and capitalist icons such as Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders physically materialize and drive the plot forward.
Murakami’s prose is, to his credit, always eminently understandable. This is perhaps due to what seems like a concentrated effort on his (or his translator’s) part to wax America — when Kafka buys a bowl of udon for lunch or reserves a hotel room, he forks over U.S. dollars, not yen. The familiarity of the language is ultimately to the story’s benefit — in a novel that relies so heavily on a dream like, almost hallucinogenic brand of metaphysics, complex, dream like narration would only render it inaccessible. However, the prose is, at times, inelegant, and there is the occasional trance-breaking, jarring cliché. Kafka is prone to say things like, “Sometimes the wall I’ve erected around me comes crumbling down.”
Thematically, the story seems to tie together well, but in an odd and illogical way. The story is coherent the way a dream is — it isn’t particularly surprising when Colonel Sanders introduces himself as a pimp, or when Nakata chats with cats about the weather. The reader remains convinced that it all means something, that everything fits, though in a manner which always seems to lie just beyond one’s grasp — as though it were somewhere off in the ineffable, unconscious void Murakami is so fond of exploring. Given his concern for the workings of the unconscious, it is fitting that Murakami should delve so deeply into the inner structure of dreams. His intimate familiarity with the world of dreams sets him apart from other novelists writing today, and in “Kafka on the Shore,” it shows. Murakami is undoubtedly a great writer. He is also, first and foremost, an iridescent, spectacular dreamer.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5