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Oct 30, 2015 — by John Beemer
“If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets.”
“Beautiful” and “strange”—two words I use to describe Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Published in 2002 and translated from Japanese to English in 2005, it’s the most memorable thing I’ve read in years. Few books have haunted me like this.
It’s a weird, surreal book. An old man talks with cats. Eternal soldiers, who decided to step outside of time to avoid WWII, guard a forest passage to a secret, timeless village. A mysterious, other-worldly being adopts the form of Colonel Sanders, and, operating in this world as a pimp, decides to guide the main characters. Not too far into the book, we also encounter the sinister Johnnie Walker (yes, of Scotch whiskey fame), who rounds up neighborhood cats and eats their hearts to harness their souls so he can construct a magic flute capable of stealing larger human souls. It gets stranger, but none of these oddities seem hokey or forced. They are woven seamlessly into the very fabric of the tale. This is a world where weird stuff happens, where something can be both true and false simultaneously, where the consequences of actions echo a hundred miles away. Yet the characters deal with all this the best they can.
Murakami reveals his plot gradually, focusing on the two main characters in alternating chapters. First we have Kafka, a resourceful 15-year-old who hunkers down in a library, fleeing not only his hometown but also an Oedipal prophecy. He meets some interesting characters: Oshima, a transgender librarian who becomes Kafka’s closest friend, and Miss Saeki, an ethereal, one-hit wonder pop singer resigned to spending the rest of her days lamenting lost love and managing the library. Kafka may—or may not—have killed his father. He may—or may not—have slept with his sister and his mother. We don’t know, and I’m not sure if Kafka knows, either.
Nakata is our other main character. He’s an older man, left mentally impaired by some sort of flashing-light-in-the-sky during his childhood in the midst of WWII. This strange occurrence also gave him the ability to communicate with cats around his neighborhood. He lives a peaceful existence as a professional finder of lost cats, eventually leading him far from home. Nakata is fascinating. His humility hides great inner strength. Supremely kind and gentle, he is also capable of supernatural powers he doesn’t seem to understand (e.g., he has a habit of making fish fall from the sky like rain). Trusting some sort of intuitive force, he leaves home to fulfill a mission, along the way befriending a rough young truck driver and forming an unlikely but endearing friendship.
At first, I wondered how on earth these characters and their story arcs would converge. Honestly, even on the last page, I wasn’t sure how everything managed to come together, but I certainly enjoyed the ride. Kafka on the Shore isn’t a hard read. It’s a love story. It’s a bildungsroman. But it is also an enigma; complete understanding of the novel seems to drift just out of reach. Most questions here don’t have answers—most mysteries remain unsolved. No two readers will have the same interpretations. It can be confusing, even mind-bending. Yet Murakami’s style is so effortless and simple that it belies his underlying riddles. If you want someone to spell it out, plain and logical—if you’re uncomfortable with drawing your own conclusions, making sense of untied plot threads, or accepting magical realism, this probably won’t be an enjoyable book for you. But if you enjoy that sort of thing, I’m sure this story and these characters will stick with you for a long, long time.