Published (in English): January 2005
Finally got around to it: April 2011
“But like you said, there might be examples,” Oshima continues, “of people becoming living spirits out of positive feelings of love. I just haven’t done much research into the matter, I’m afraid. Maybe it happens. Love can rebuild the world, they say, so everything’s possible when it comes to love.”
“Have you ever been in love?” I ask.
He stares at me, taken aback. “What do you think? I’m not a starfish or a pepper tree. I’m a living, breathing human being. Of course I’ve been in love.”
“That isn’t what I mean,” I say, blushing.
“I know,” he says, and smiles at me gently.
Structured in a similar way to Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami's Kafka on the Shore is a split narrative, going back and forth between Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old boy who has run away from his sculptor/cat-murdering father (because cat souls make the most wondrous flutes) and is searching for his long lost mother and sister, and the elderly Nakata, a socially and mentally distorted man who makes his living as a finder of lost cats, a task he is especially efficient at thanks to his unique ability to speak with and understand them. Along the way, Kafka takes refuge in a quiet, privately owned library where he falls in love with the 15-year-old ghost of the head librarian, Miss Saeki, prompting an affair with the true-to-life model who may or may not be his mother, thus potentially cementing the Oedipal curse that caused him to flee his home in the first place. And I haven’t even mentioned the dream rape of a woman who might possibly be his sister, though neither the mother's or the sister's identity is ever directly resolved. Simultaneously, Nakata kills a man calling himself “Johnnie Walker,” a murderer of cats (and Kafka’s father), before embarking on a long journey of psychic cleansing with the help of a truck driver named Hoshino.
Murakami has built his career on blurring the division between the real and the metaphysical, and Kafka on the Shore might be his most difficult narrative to penetrate. Before even hitting the halfway point of the novel, it became clear that the parallels and riddles being drawn between familiar Murakami staples and influences such as Greek myth, real-life “ideas” as avatars (the character of Colonel Sanders), and jazz would require more than one reading to fully comprehend. It’s fair to say that some of the metaphysical questions prompted are among the most esoteric in Murakami’s writing, with the links between characters intentionally obscured. What becomes clear when reading the book is that the author has no intention to provide any concrete answers, or even the tools to discover such things. Answering the riddles the book provides, directly or indirectly, would be antithetical to the tapestry he’s worked so hard to construct—one whose purpose is to activate discussion. When an answer is given, discussion ends, and it’s obvious that Murakami wanted to construct a narrative that could be interpreted in any number of ways.
The yes-no-maybe-so structure of the plot will alienate some, but the book’s strength lies in its ability to layer these questions and riddles on top of one another without it ever becoming too confusing or distracting. While concrete resolution may not exist within the book’s pages, the characters are never uninteresting or lifeless, and the curious nature of their interactions—traipsing effortlessly between very blunt and open dialogue to discussing the potential of falling in love with a literal spirit as if it were a common occurrence—do a lot to anchor the book in a comfortable middle ground between reality and complete surrealism.
Kafka on the Shore is not Murakami’s strongest work, and it sometimes relies too much on imagery and concepts used in his previous novels, but it is difficult to put down all the same. For those requiring resolution and hard answers to their narratives, it will likely frustrate and annoy. For Murakami fans, it feels like a culmination of concepts and structural choices that have been developed through previous titles like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. While not entirely new in some areas, Kafka on the Shore offers a deeper glimpse into the types of questions that drive Murakami’s work, and as such it is very easy to recommend.