Crossing Over

Published: February 6, 2005


A Review of


By Haruki Murakami.
Translated by
Philip Gabriel.
436 pp.
Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.

It is easier to be bewitched by Haruki Murakami's fiction than to figure out how he accomplishes the bewitchment. His novels -- in America, the best known is probably ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' -- lack the usual devices of suspense. His narrators tend to be a bit passive, and the stakes in many of his shaggy-dog plots remain obscure. Yet the undercurrent is nearly irresistible, and readers emerge several hundred pages later as if from a trance, convinced they've made contact with something significant, if not entirely sure what that something is.

Murakami's latest, ''Kafka on the Shore,'' is no exception, although it is a departure for this Japanese novelist in other ways. Most of his protagonists have been men in their 30's, easygoing solitary types with spotty romantic histories and a taste for jazz, whiskey and American films. This time, Murakami's hero, a runaway boy calling himself Kafka Tamura, is only 15. Kafka is fleeing his father, a man whose shadowy malevolence takes the form of an Oedipal prophecy: Kafka, he insists, will kill his father and sleep with his mother and his older sister, both of whom vanished when the boy was 4.

Kafka relates his adventures in chapters that alternate with another story, that of Satoru Nakata, an elderly man. When he was 9, near the end of World War II, Nakata was part of a group of schoolchildren who, while on a school trip in the local woods, inexplicably lost consciousness. When he came to, weeks later, Nakata had lost all his memories, his ability to read and write, and most of his intelligence. On the upside, he acquired the ability to talk to cats, and so he supplements the small subsidy he gets from the government with fees his neighbors pay him to find their lost pets.

''The best way to think about reality,'' the narrator of ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' declares, is ''to get as far away from it as possible.'' (This is just before he decides to cope with the disappearance of his wife by sitting at the bottom of a dry well for hours at a time.) You could call this Murakami's own method, except that in his fiction, the unreal elements are handled so matter-of-factly that they could hardly be called ''far away'' from the realistic ones; the two coexist seamlessly. Nakata may talk to cats, yes, but their conversations always begin with polite chitchat about the weather.

Murakami is an aficionado of the drowsy interstices of everyday life, reality's cul-de-sacs, places so filled with the nothing that happens in them that they become uncanny: hallways, highway rest stops, vacant lots. Although the dreamlike quality of his work makes the film director David Lynch his nearest American counterpart, Lynch's palette is primarily nocturnal while Murakami's welcomes the noontime sun. No one is better at evoking the spookiness of midday in a quiet neighborhood when everyone is at work.

A lot of things happen in Murakami's novels, but what lingers longest in the memory is this distinctive mood, a stillness pregnant with . . . what? Some meaning that's forever slipping away. The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong, at least by Western literary standards. Over the years, his prose has become increasingly, and even militantly, simple. Although Murakami is both an admirer and a translator of Raymond Carver, this simplicity isn't the semaphoric purity of American minimalism. Partisans of the beautiful sentence will find little sustenance here.

Murakami can turn a pretty metaphor when he chooses -- headlights that ''lick'' the tree trunks lining a dark road, the ''whooshing moan of air'' from a passing truck ''like somebody's soul is being yanked out'' -- but he's just as likely to opt deliberately for a cliché: ''Sometimes the wall I've erected around me comes crumbling down.'' He also makes free use of brand names. In American fiction, the sanctum of the literary must not be polluted by the trash of commercial culture -- not, that is, unless it's coated in a protective layer of satire. But when Murakami tells us that a character drinks Diet Pepsi or wears a New Balance cap it's not to sketch a withering little portrait of this person's social class and taste, but to describe exactly what he or she drinks and wears, creating a small tether to a shared reality.

Later in the novel, Kafka finds refuge in a job at a small, private library in a seaside town, while Nakata attracts the attention of a sinister cat catcher who wears leather boots, a red tailcoat and a tall hat. The cat catcher introduces himself as Johnnie Walker, but any inclination to see this as a bit of wacky humor is promptly squashed by the scene of sadistic violence that follows. Colonel Sanders, who appears farther on in the novel in a more helpful capacity, professes to be taking on the appearance of ''a famous capitalist icon'' as a convenience, when really, he says, ''I'm an abstract concept.''

Clichés, the ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function -- these sound like the gambits of postmodernism, tricks meant to distance the reader from the artificiality of narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labeled ''cerebral.'' But ''Kafka at the Shore,'' like all of Murakami's fiction, doesn't feel distant or artificial. Murakami is like a magician who explains what he's doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of the author's imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine. Johnnie Walker becomes frightening, and Colonel Sanders a lovable if irascible incarnation of, say, the god Hermes.

The story, of course, is a very old tale in contemporary trappings. Can Kafka escape the legacy of violence he has inherited from his father, the DNA he equates with fate? The question has resonance for Murakami, who is keenly interested in his country's role in World War II and who has described himself as profoundly transformed by a nonfiction book he wrote about survivors of the Aum Shinrikyo cult's poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Toward the end, deep in a forest, Kafka will encounter two imperial soldiers who stepped out of time during the war because they couldn't stomach the kill-or-be-killed nature of their lot. They haven't aged, but they also haven't lived.

The soldiers aren't the only characters in ''Kafka at the Shore'' who have chosen suspended animation over suffering the depredations of time and loss. This links ''Kafka'' to an earlier keystone novel of Murakami's, ''Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,'' which uses the same two-story format. In that book, a noirish science fiction yarn alternates with eerie dispatches from a walled fairy-tale village where nothing ever changes. The village is eventually revealed to be a cordoned-off section of the narrator's own unconscious mind. Because of some botched neurosurgery, he'll soon be confined there -- a kind of death, but also a kind of immortality, since in the unconscious there is no time.

The weird, stately urgency of Murakami's novels comes from their preoccupation with such internal problems; you can imagine each as a drama acted out within a single psyche. In each, a self lies in pieces and must be put back together; a life that is stalled must be kick-started and relaunched into the bruising but necessary process of change. Reconciling us to that necessity is something stories have done for humanity since time immemorial. Dreams do it, too. But while anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it's the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.

I'm suddenly covered in goosebumps, but there's nothing to worry about, I tell myself. The path is right over there. As long as I don't lose sight of that I'll be able to return to the light. . . .

Now I know exactly how dangerous the forest can be. And I hope I never forget it. Just like Crow said, the world's filled with things I don't know about. All the plants and trees there, for instance. I'd never imagined that trees could be so weird and unearthly. I mean, the only plants I've ever really seen or touched till now are the city kind -- neatly trimmed and cared-for bushes and trees. But the ones here -- the ones living here -- are totally different. They have a physical power, their breath grazing any humans who might chance by, their gaze zeroing in on the intruder like they've spotted their prey. Like they have some dark, prehistoric, magical powers. Like deep-sea creatures rule the ocean depths, in the forest trees reign supreme. If it wanted to, the forest could reject me -- or swallow me up whole. A healthy amount of fear and respect might be a good idea. From ''Kafka on the Shore.''


Laura Miller is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.


See also this excerpt from Catherine Humble's review in The Observer, "The Implosion of Truth," about constructing narratives and meanings in order to repair one's life:

Haruki Murakami has often been described as a surrealist writer. But his latest novel is less a search for truth in the imaginary than a Kafkaesque implosion of truth. . .

Murakami's mesmerising narrative is an exploration of loss and recuperation. Yet as the two stories interrupt each other, any progressive coming of truth is disturbed. For Kafka, the fantasy of a middle-aged librarian fills the 'blank within himself' (the mother who abandoned him). . .

Kafka, however, is not content to leave the 'void of his life' unexplained. So he constructs meanings and stories, which result in a division between reality and fantasy (he hears voices in his head and is prone to violent outbursts).

Kafka's coming of age is the recognition that the truth of himself, his past, and his love, is not something to be intellectualized, but respected as in part unknown. Laden with philosophical overtones and enchanting wit, Murakami's story is at once childishly magical and astoundingly wise. Just as the reader learns not to force this book into coherent sense, so Kafka gains the self-realisation that sometimes 'having no conclusion is just fine'.

Excerpts from another review by Jessica Schneider, 12/16/07


 ....I have to say that this is one of the most unusual books I've ever read. He delves into both the real and surreal, the dream and waking--that you are not sure which world you are in. Maybe both at once. In this book, fish fall from the sky, cats talk, people commit murder and then are unsure if they committed it, as well as engaging in incest (or are they?) Characters know their motives, yet question them and are also unsure if anything is even happening at all. So having said that, it is near impossible to provide an adequate plot summary with so few words, since so much happens in the book.

  The story centers around a 15-year old boy named Kafka Tamura who runs away from home to search for his mother and sister. Along the way, Kafka is listening and getting advice from an individual called "the boy named Crow" ("Crow" happens to mean "Kafka" in Czech--the book claims). At the same time, there is an old man named Nakata who possesses the ability to talk to cats. The chapters alternate between the young boy and the old man, both whose lives overlap. Kafka meets up with a librarian named Oshima who borders between genders. He also meets up with a young girl he imagines is his sister and an older woman he imagines is his mother. He engages in sexual activity with both, albeit we never know if it is really happening, or if this is just a dream, or if these really are his family members at all. Much in the same way Kafka the novelist invites the idea of dream in a work like The Metamorphosis, in Kafka on the Shore, readers will be left with ambiguity.

  Murakami drops bits of insight throughout his dialogue, such as when Oshima, the half-gender person tells Kafka, "People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues. Sophocles' Oedipus Rex being a great example. Oedipus is drawn into tragedy not because of laziness or stupidity, but because of his courage and honesty. So an inevitable irony results." This, of course, is later shown when Kafka engages in sex with Miss Saeki, a woman he believes might be his mother.

  As the narrative progresses, Nakata meets a man named Johnnie Walker, who collects cats' souls so he can make a 'special flute'. Nakata witnesses Walker cutting the cats open and eating their hearts out raw. In a moment of rage, Nakata kills Walker and then leaves town. Likewise, Kafka, whose story is running along side Nakata's, believes he might have killed his father. Unsure, the young boy does a lot of wondering, as well as reading in the library so he can fill his mind with ideas and things to add to his memory. Reading book after book, he notices a painting on the wall called "Kafka on the Shore" with the image of a 15-year old girl that Kafka believes is his mother [Actually, I believe that the image in the painting is that of a 15-yar old boy, who would ahve been Miss Saeki's love interest. See Murakami p. 229ff] . In the end, the woman he believes to be his mother gives him the painting, telling him that he was the one in it--that ultimately it is his memory of that moment that she is giving him.

  The book alludes to many metaphors as these, and many are nicely done. Images represent one thing, and then turn out to represent another. This book is not your traditional plot-driven 'fluff' novel, for reading it requires a great deal of attention. Having said that, the book succeeds on many levels, and there are many brilliant moments throughout. Touching upon memory and forgetting, the past and present, and the waking dream makes this read more of an experience than a mere story alone.

  Some reviewers have complained that the book is a recycle of previous Murakami themes, and despite this being my first novel of his I've read, I found this introduction rewarding. Yes, there are times when the book can get a little silly, such as when Colonel Sanders from KFC makes a debut, or at times it delves into melodrama. Here is a scene where Kafka visits his 'mother' in a dream (or is it) and she stabs her arm for him to drink the blood:

  I bend over and put my lips on the small wound, lick her blood with my tongue, close my eyes, and savor the taste. I hold the blood in my mouth and slowly swallow it. Her blood goes down, deep in my throat. It's quietly absorbed by the dry outer layer of my heart. Only now do I understand how much I've wanted that blood.

  The scene, despite being dealt with in a matter of fact style as far as the writing goes, can get a bit heavy handed at times. It is easy for one to become lost in the metaphor if not paying attention, for there are so many details going on that make this the rich work that it is. And I've only touched upon a few of them....