Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike new novel
by John Updike
From The New Yorker, January 24, 2005
Kafka on the Shore
(translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel; Knopf; $25.95);
Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “Kafka on the Shore,” is a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender. Spun out to four hundred and thirty-six pages, it seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be. Murakami, born in 1949, ran a Tokyo jazz club before he became a published writer, with the novel “Hear the Wind Sing,” in 1979. Though his work abounds with references to contemporary American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details the banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hungover nineteen-seventies, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than to the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki. We often cannot imagine, while reading “Kafka on the Shore,” what will come next, and our suspicion—reinforced by Murakami’s comments in interviews, such as the one in last summer’s Paris Review—is that the author did not always know, either.
Yet “Kafka on the Shore” has a schematic rigor in its execution. Alternate chapters relate the stories of two disparate but slowly converging heroes. The odd-numbered chapters serve up the first-person narrative of a fifteen-year-old runaway from his affluent, motherless home in Tokyo; his father is a world-renowned sculptor, Koichi Tamura, and the son has given himself the peculiar first name Kafka. He totes a carefully packed backpack and, in his head, talking in boldface, a scolding, exhorting alter ego called Crow—which is what Kafka means, or close to it, in Czech. The even-numbered chapters trace, beginning with a flurry of official documents, the life of a mentally defective sexagenarian, Satoru Nakata. He was one of sixteen fourth graders who, in 1944, while on a mushroom-gathering walk with their teacher, fell into a coma after an unexplained flash of silver in the sky. Nakata was the only one who didn’t wake up, unharmed, within a few hours; when he did wake up, several weeks later in a military hospital, he had lost his entire memory and, with it, the ability to read. He doesn’t know what Japan is or even recognize his parents’ faces. He is able, however, to learn to work in a shop producing handcrafted furniture, and when, upon the owner’s death, the factory disbands he supplements his government subsidy with a modest-paying sideline in finding lost cats, since along with his disabilities he has gained the rare ability to converse with cats. (Cats frequently figure in Murakami’s fiction, as delegates from another world; his jazz club was called Peter Cat.) One cat search leads Nakata to a house—that of the sculptor Koichi Tamura, in fact—where he is compelled to stab to death a malevolent apparition in the form of Johnnie Walker, from the whiskey label. Fleeing the bloody crime scene, Nakata hitches truck rides south to Shikoku, the
Both the young man and the old, though independent and reclusive, have a knack of forming useful friendships. Kafka befriends Oshima, the androgynous, hemophiliac assistant at a small library where the boy can read all day and, eventually, bunk at night; Nakata in his winning simplicity finds a disciple in one of the truck drivers who give him a ride, the lower-class, hitherto unenlightened Hoshino, “with a ponytail, a pierced ear, and a Chunichi Dragons baseball team cap.” The double plot unfolds in cunningly but tenuously linked chapters. There is violence, comedy, sex—deep, transcendental, anatomically correct sex, oral and otherwise—and a bewildering overflow of possible meanings.
In a prefatory chapter, Crow promises Kafka a “violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm,” with “hot, red blood.” He assures him, and the expectant reader, “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. . . . But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.” At the center of this particular novelistic storm is the idea that our behavior in dreams can translate to live action; our dreams can be conduits back into waking reality. This notion, the learned Oshima tells Kafka, can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” the early-eleventhcentury Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki. Oshima summarizes:
“Lady Rokujo—she’s one of Prince Genji’s lovers—becomes so consumed with jealousy over Genji’s main wife, Lady Aoi, that she turns into an evil spirit that possesses her. Night after night she attacks Lady Aoi in her bed until she finally kills her. . . . But the most interesting part of the story is that Lady Rokujo has no inkling that she’d become a living spirit. She’d have nightmares and wake up, only to discover that her long black hair smelled like smoke. Not having any idea what was going on, she was totally confused. In fact, this smoke came from the incense the priests lit as they prayed for Lady Aoi. Completely unaware of it, she’d been flying through space and passing down the tunnel of her subconscious into Aoi’s bedroom.”
Read in context, in the first section of Arthur Waley’s translation of “Genji,” the episode borders on the naturalistic. Within the tight, constrained circles of the imperial court, emotional violence bursts its bonds. Both women are gravely sickened by the trespassing spirit of one of them; Lady Rokujo, a beauty of great refinement, is horrified that her dreams about Princess Aoi are full of a “brutal fury such as in her waking life would have been utterly foreign to her.” She reflects, “How terrible! It seemed then that it was really possible for one’s spirit to leave the body and break out into emotions which the waking mind would not countenance.”
From the inarguable truth of the second observation the possibility of one’s spirit leaving one’s body could be plausibly deduced in a prescientific, preëlectric age when, Oshima points out, “the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.” In Murakami’s vision of our materialist, garishly illuminated age, however, the boundary between inner and outer darkness is traversed by grotesque figments borrowed from the world of commercial imagery: Johnnie Walker, with boots and top hat, manifests himself to the cat-loving simpleton Nakata as a mass murderer of stray felines, jocularly cutting open their furry abdomens and popping their still-beating hearts into his mouth, and Colonel Sanders, in his white suit and string tie, appears to Nakata’s companion, Hoshino, as a fast-talking pimp. The Colonel, questioned by the startled Hoshino about his nature, quotes another venerable text, Ueda Akinari’s “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”:
Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.
Later, with some exasperation, the Colonel tells Hoshino, “I’m a concept, get it? Con-cept!” Concept or whatever, he is a very adroit fixer when it comes to such supernatural hustles as handling the entrance stone to the spirit world, where the dead and the drastically detached live in the heart of the forest like writers at the MacDowell Colony—meals and housekeeping provided and other residents discreetly out of sight.
This novel quotes Goethe as decreeing, “Everything’s a metaphor.” But a Western reader expects the metaphors, or symbolic realities, to be—as in “The Faerie Queene,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and Goethe’s “Faust”—organized by certain polarities, in a magnetic field shaped by a central supernatural authority. No such authority controls the spooky carnival of “Kafka on the Shore.” To quote Colonel Sanders once more:
“Listen—God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God’s always been kind of a flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person.”
In “Kafka on the Shore,” the skies unaccountably produce showers of sardines, mackerel, and leeches, and some unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined. The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.” Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as “gods” or “spirits” but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as “anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.”
A tenacious adherence to Shinto in the Japanese countryside and among the masses has enabled it to coexist for a millennium and a half with Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and to be subject to repeated revivals, most recently, from 1871 to 1945, as the official national religion and a powerful spiritual weapon in Japan’s imperialist wars. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Shinto, under the direction of the Allied occupation force, was disestablished, its holidays were curtailed, and the emperor’s divinity—based on the first emperor’s purported descent from the sun goddess—was renounced. But Shinto shrines remain, in the imperial precincts and in the countryside; its rites are performed, its paper wish-slips tied to bushes, its amulets sold to tourists Asian and Western. Shinto’s strong aesthetic component, a reverence toward materials and processes, continues to permeate the crafts and the arts. Kami exists not only in heavenly and earthly forces but in animals, birds, plants, and stones. Nakata and Hoshino spend hours trying to learn how to converse with a stone—to divine what the stone, at times easily lifted and at others heavy to the limits of a man’s strength, wants. Kami pervades Murakami’s world, in which, therefore, many Western readers will feel, a bit queasily, at sea, however many fragments of globalized Western culture—Goethe, Beethoven, Eichmann, Hegel, Coltrane, Schubert, Napoleon—bob from paragraph to paragraph.
The novel’s two heroes interact only in the realm of kami. Of their entwined narratives, the story of Kafka Tamura is more problematic, more curiously overloaded, than that of the holy fool Nakata, with its familiar elements of science fiction, quest, and ebullient heroics. As Hoshino remarks, “This is starting to feel like an Indiana Jones movie or something.” Return and release to the underworld of his childhood coma are the old man’s intelligible goals, for which he prepares with prodigious sessions of sleep. Less intelligibly, the “cool, tall, fifteen-year-old boy lugging a backpack and a bunch of obsessions” labors under an ill-defined Oedipal curse. He hates his father enough to dream of killing him, and to feel little sorrow when he is killed, but we never see the father, unless it is in the bizarre guise of Johnnie Walker, and know only that he was a famous artist and, as such, probably pretty egocentric. Kafka’s mother left home, with his older sister, when he was four years old, and when he encounters her in Shikoku it is in the form of a fifteen-year-old spirit projection of the library director, trim, prim, reserved Miss Saeki, who is over fifty. Miss Saeki and Kafka Tamura talk like this:
“We’re not metaphors.”
“I know,” I say. “But metaphors help eliminate what separates you and me.”
A faint smile comes to her as she looks up at me. “That’s the oddest pickup line I’ve ever heard.”
“There’re a lot of odd things going on—but I feel like I’m slowly getting closer to the truth.”
“Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth? Or maybe they supplement each other?”
“Either way, I don’t think I can stand the sadness I feel right now,” I tell her.
“I feel the same way.”
Small wonder, as the teen-ager admits, that “the whole confused mess swirls around in my brain, and my head feels like it’s about to burst.” The Oedipus myth, shedding its fatal Greek gravity and the universality Freud gave it, just adds vapor to the mist of fancy and strangeness through which the young hero moves toward the unexceptional goal of growing up.
In the last pages, the novel asks that it be taken as a happily ending saga of maturation, of “a brand-new world” for a purged Kafka. But beneath his feverish, symbolically fraught adventures there is a subconscious pull almost equal to the pull of sex and vital growth: that of nothingness, of emptiness, of blissful blankness. Murakami is a tender painter of negative spaces. After his coma, Nakata “returned to this world with his mind wiped clean. The proverbial blank slate.” In his adulthood, “that bottomless world of darkness, that weighty silence and chaos, was an old friend, a part of him already.” Throughout this chronicle, Murakami describes his characters falling asleep as lovingly as he itemizes what they cook and eat. Refrigerated severed cat heads, like the severed human heads of Tanizaki’s tremendous novella “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi,” have a lulling serenity, “staring out blankly at a point in space.” Making love to a woman, “you listen as the blank within her is filled.” Kafka Tamura says, “There’s a void inside me, a blank that is slowly expanding, devouring what’s left of who I am. I can hear it happening.” Heading into the forest, leaving all his backpacked defenses behind, he thinks triumphantly, “I head for the core of the labyrinth, giving myself up to the void.” Existence as something half empty—a mere skin on the essential void, a transitory shore—needs, for its celebration, a Japanese spiritual tact. ♦