Book of the Month: Kafka on the Shore

Book of the Month: Kafka on the Shore

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Written by Case Pharr
Edited by Sadie Kimbrough

Kafka on the Shore is a magical realist novel by famed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Framed in modern Japan, Murakami weaves a novel which explores metaphysics, utilizes Sophoclean prophecy, bridges dreams and reality, pits determinism and free will against each other, and most of all engages the reader on both an emotional and intellectual level.

Kafka on the Shore has a dual plot, alternating every chapter between the story of an adolescent boy as he flees the police after his father’s mysterious death and an elderly man man who lost his memory as well as his ability to read and write due to a bizarre childhood incident. The novel begins with the story of young Kafka Tamura, son of famed sculptor Koichi Tamura. Kafka has grown up with the conspicuous absence of his mother and sister, of whom he has only one picture. He flees his childhood home after his father prophesies that Kafka will kill his father and have sex with his mother and sister. In his flight, he begins living and working at a library where he makes the acquaintances of the mysterious Miss Saeki and Oshima. As he gets closer to these two, he begins having mysterious vivid dreams which eventually culminate in a journey beyond the physical realm and into a liminal space.

While Kafka is on his own odyssey, the tale of the elderly man, Nakata, is told. Beginning with a strange encounter in his elementary school years during World War II, Nakata’s whole class goes unconscious at once, but only Nakata remains unconscious for an extended period of time. When he awakens, he is unable to remember anything, and he cannot read, write, or form complex sentences. However, Nakata has a strange ability to speak with cats, and he uses this ability to look for lost pets. Eventually Nakata saves a cat from a man, by the name of Johnny Walker, who is about to kill it. He kills Johnny Walker in order to save the cat, setting into motion his own journey, which eventually results in his opening a sort of portal into another realm.

Murakami connects the two disparate plots by sending Kafka through the portal which Hoshino, Nakata’s friend, opens. This portal is both physical and metaphysical as Kafka enters a sort of world of ideal forms that both exists and does not. While the world he enters through the portal is idyllic and almost perfect he decides that he would rather live a normal life and grow old and chooses to leave.

Murakami’s novel is a masterclass in the use of the magical realist genre. Each character’s story is framed in a setting which appears mundane, however, Murakami fractures these realistic surroundings by peppering in more and more of the surreal as the novel progresses.  He is able to call up such deep and universal themes with his simple prose and compelling narrative. There is something in the novel for any reader to appreciate. Whether it be the allusions to classics such as Sophocles or the charming nature of his characters, Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore is both accessible, beautiful and thought provoking. Ultimately, Kafka on the Shore is a story about the relationship between fate and the fight for free will. The prophecy set before Kafka and the spectre of the childhood accident which haunts Nakata serve as clear calls to a sort of quest which both characters undertake. It becomes increasingly uncertain whether each character is acting under his own agency or that of some higher deity like power. However, Murakami almost subverts this binary opposition between wyrd and free will as he shows how each character’s choices, while free, fundamentally align with and fall into a predetermined fate.

It is impossible to capture in such a short review the breadth and beauty captured by Murakami in these pages, however, I would encourage everyone to read this book. It is a work of art which is both compelling and complex enough to satisfy anyone reading it.