Sometimes, the best love stories and the best quest stories are also the strangest.
Famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami knows this. In his latest novel, Kafka on the Shore, metaphors very literally battle one another, cats talk, ghost soldiers roam, and prostitutes quote Hegel.
Kafka is right up there with his masterpieces Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. After all, this is a book about fate and finding oneself -- about love and loss, and the ghosts that are created over both.
We meet a 15-year-old Japanese boy who has run away from a troubled home life and dubbed himself Kafka Tamura. His father, a famous sculptor, has predicted that Kafka's fate will be a bizarrely Oedipal one, even though his mother and sister left when he was a small boy. Kafka tries desperately to escape his fate, but while he's running, he's also searching, at first unconsciously, then determinedly, for his lost mother and sister.
Meanwhile, in another part of Japan, a charming old man named Nakata earns his living finding lost cats. In an episode never fully explained, we find that he was once a bright little boy, but due to a bizarre wartime illlness, he is now sort of mildly retarded. When he is driven to stab a madman, Nakata travels outside the safety of his known surroundings on a quest.
With our two protagonists on the road, it seems likely that their paths will intersect. And of course, they do -- but in the oddest ways imaginable.
Young Kafka regularly bolsters himself with pep talks from "the boy named Crow," a sort of conscious self that tells him that he must be the toughest 15-year-old in the world in order to survive. He soon starts to live and work in a small library, befriending a mysterious but friendly fellow named Oshima and Miss Sakei, who runs the place. She's enticingly sad, alluring to Kafka in every way a woman can be.
As always, Murakami begins his tale on the straight and narrow, but magical realism slowly seeps in with a dreamlike, sometimes violent quality. His prose is exact, but never feels sparse or lacking, instead constructing a slightly dreary world that is sadly beautiful.
Murakami loves to lecture, and Kafka on the Shore is no exception, with diatribes about classical music and literature. Of course, the discussions always comment on the story:
"Things outside you are projections of what's inside you, and what's inside you is a projection of what's outside," instructs Oshima on the topic of metaphor.
Kafka understands: "Sort of like Hansel and Gretel."
"Right -- just like them. The forest has set a trap, and no matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, some sharp-eyed birds are going to eat up all your bread crumbs."
One could comment that there are stock characters in a Haruki Murakami novel. There are men with ambiguous natures, sympathetic but lacking fellows who want to comfort troubled women. There are beautiful, emotionally distant women who usually aren't able to be comforted. Normally this sort of repetition would aggravate fans, but here it rarely matters; his characters are always so gorgeously rendered that the effect is that of recognition rather than boredom.
-- Kara Luger
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (Alfred A. Knopf: New York) $25.95/hardcover