Franz Kafka wrote of freeing the "tremendous world" inside his head and the fear that it would tear him to pieces if he tried to bury it within himself. For young Kafka Tamura, the protagonist in Haruki Murakami's magnificent new novel, KAFKA ON THE SHORE, the tremendous inner world is not literary but must be freed and explored all the same. In fact, for Kafka Tamura, coming to terms with this world is a matter of life and death.
Fifteen-year-old Kafka runs away from home, not sure of his destination, only certain that he must get away from his father. In the back of his mind is the idea that he may find his long lost mother and sister, even if it means fulfilling the strange prophecy his father cursed him with --- that Kafka would kill his father and then sleep with his mother and sister. Kafka leaves Tokyo with the voice of the "boy called Crow" in his head telling him that he must now be the strongest 15-year-old in the world. When he finally arrives in Takamatsu, he not only finds a strange and peaceful library to spend his time in but also awakens outdoors one night covered in blood with no memory of what has transpired. He soon learns that his father, back in Tokyo, has been brutally murdered, and soon he takes refuge in the library and with the kind librarians.
As Kafka begins his journey, so does Nakata, an elderly man who, after a violent incident when he was a schoolboy, has lost many memories and the ability to read and write --- but he does have the ability to talk to cats. Nakata flees Tokyo after he kills a bizarre madman named Johnnie Walker, who has been murdering cats in order to create an otherworldly flute. Nakata eventually is joined in his travels by Hoshino, a young truck driver who at once guides Nakata and is guided by him.
If this all sounds strange and complicated, it is. But Murakami's story is also profound and beautiful --- full of philosophy, metaphors, symbols and amazing characters. In a wholly unique style, perhaps best described as Japanese magical realism, Murakami's tale is both hopeful and heartbreaking --- a story of grief, loss and memory.
Soon the police are looking for Kafka to answer questions about his father's death, and Oshima, the wise and mysterious librarian, lets Kafka stay and work in the library. There, Kafka falls in love with the sad and grief-stricken Miss Saeki, a woman old enough to be his mother. He learns of her heartbreak and the song she wrote called "Kafka on the Shore," which translates to Kafka Tamura. What is the connection between Miss Saeki and Kafka? If she is his mother, and lover, has his father's dark prophecy come true?
Eventually Kafka must leave the library, and he stays for a while in a cabin in a deep and haunted forest where he finally must confront his loss and the hatred he felt for his father. At the same time, Nakata must close a mystical entrance he has opened to restore the world to the way it is supposed to be.
Throughout their journeys (if indeed the journeys are separate and not in fact the same journey), both Nakata and Kafka are helped by various characters, and each must confront painful and confusing realities in order to complete the nameless mission they seem compelled to undertake.
Without the dark paranoia of Franz Kafka's work, Murakami's novel does share some characteristics with it, such as a horrible father/son relationship, a feeling of a secret and closed other world, and a life full of riddles. KAFKA ON THE SHORE also refers to Hegel and other philosophers, the life and work of Beethoven, the story of Oedipus, and Japanese spirituality.
KAFKA ON THE SHORE is brilliant storytelling, such an original and well-written novel. It is fun and interesting to read, but thoughtful and challenging as well.
Franz Kafka wrote that a book "must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us," and Kafka Tamura must destroy the frozen sea of memory and loss in order to, quite literally, live the rest of his life. Murakami's novel is successful in so many ways (despite some slowness toward the middle section of the book) and surely must be the type of story Kafka had in mind when he imagined books as axes, destroying the cold parts of our hearts and souls to allow in warmth.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011
Kafka on the Shore