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Memory, dreams and responsibility

By Sally Bland - May 04,2014 - Last updated at May 04,2014

Kafka on the Shore 

Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel

New York: Vintage Books, 2006, 467 pp, $15.95


In "Kafka on the Shore", Japanese writer Haruki Murakami crisscrosses a number of genres. 

There is an unusual, haunting love story intertwined with a coming-of-age novel, both infused with elements of myth, science fiction, philosophy and multiple cultural references. 

Into a plot that alternates between fast-paced action and graduated unfolding of the key characters' consciousness, Murakami injects numerous themes and sub-themes. 

Some of these were explored by the German-language writer, Franz Kafka, whose name appears in the title: alienation, brutality, parent-child conflict, mystical transformations and characters launched on daunting quests, but others are particular to this novel. 

All have a special Murakamian, post-modern twist, such a naming two pivotal characters Johnny Walker and Colonel Saunders—perhaps a negative reference to the Americanisation of Japan. Still, while Kafka's works mainly dwell on the dark side, this novel ends on an upbeat note.

The plot shifts between two seemingly very different characters, and it takes a while before one knows what connects them. 

The first is a highly intelligent boy for whom the world of books is often more real, and certainly more desirable, than his real life. 

On his fifteenth birthday, he assumes the pseudonym, Kafka, and decides to run away from his home in Tokyo, which has been rendered loveless by his mother's and sister's departure a decade before, but he is haunted by his father's dire Oedipal prediction that the boy will murder him, and sleep with his mother and sister. 

When Kafka finds refuge and a job of sorts at a private library in another town, recurring dreams keep his apprehension alive, although he cherishes the rekindled memories of his mother they bring. 

As Miss Saeki, the library director, says, "Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart." (p. 389) Kafka is horrified that he will be implicated by what he dreams, referring to the words of Yeats: "In dreams begin responsibilities." (p. 204) A main theme in the novel is Kafka learning to conquer his fears and be himself. 

Part of Murakami's art lies in not revealing everything at once. Kafka doesn't know why his mother left; nor does he explain why he must escape from his father's domain. 

It is only later on, from the other strain of the plot, the story of the old man, Nakata, that the reader understands why. 

In contrast to Kafka, Nakata cannot read or engage in abstract thinking. Once a bright child, Nakata's memory was totally erased in a bizarre incident towards the end of World War II. 

But he has other skills; he can talk to cats, and his self-appointed task of finding people's lost cats leads him to Kafka's father and reveals the man's true nature. Unwittingly, Nakata embarks on a daring mission that feeds into an even greater one. 

He succeeds with the help of a truck driver, Hoshino. Bored with his life, Hoshino initially pities Nakata, but he becomes fascinated by his unique qualities, and sticks with him to the very end. 

Kafka's running away and Nakata's undertaking are parallel quests that never intersect physically but interlock on a metaphysical and moral level. If one has read other of Murakami's novels, it will come as no surprise that "Kafka on the Shore" contains parallel worlds and many bizarre occurrences. 

These fantasy devices are not just for show but most often convey major themes — fate vs. free will, the drive for freedom, and the role of memory and imagination in assigning human responsibility. 

Underneath all the enchanting, surreal trappings, this is a story about very basic, if complex, human needs—the need for love and acceptance, for meaning in life, for freedom to be oneself. 

The whole story could be reduced to a treatise on causality and the interconnection between all things, but who would want to reduce it? The specific details, locations and characters are mesmerising.

With an uncanny ability to draw the reader into the characters' minds, Murakami subtly packs many messages into this complex novel. 

Nakata's situation serves to highlight that the skills required to cope in the modern world are not the only important ones. It also blurs the distinction between the human and animal kingdoms, and posits the former as the more aggressive of the two. 

The reader sees Hoshino acquiring a taste for classical music, suggesting that all people, not just intellectuals, have cultural propensities. 

Finally, many events in the story add up to a powerful indictment of violence of all forms. 


Sally Bland

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