Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
Visit our companion sites

The New Canon
A guide to outstanding works of
fiction published since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
Celebrating masterworks of science
fiction, fantasy, alternate history and
magical realism

Great Books Guide
A look at contemporary currents in
literature
He is a man of many identities—jazz café
proprietor, marathon runner, academic,
triathlete, writer, and connoisseur of the
alienated, the bohemian and the odd man
out.  The latter label could apply to Haruki
Murakami himself.  
He is no doubt seen,
in his native Japan, as
the most Westernized
of Eastern authors, but
in the West his books
are just as resistant to
pigeonholing and easy
assimilation.  Mix up a
brew of surreal fantasy and gritty urban
realism, blend together the most distinctive
aspects of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.D.
Salinger and Sophocles, serve with a garnish
of rock and jazz.  Yet somehow it all coheres,
inventing its own metaphysics along the way.   
Murakami is like those Paris cafés  where,
one is assured, if you sit there long enough,
anybody who is
anybody will eventually stroll
in to view.  In his books, all possibilities can
be actualized, whether they emerge from well-
laid plans or the murky world of dreams.  
The judges and arbiters of taste seem to
appreciate this sense for the uncanny, and
respond in kind.  How else would the novel
Kafka on the Shore, about fifteen-year-old
Kafka Tamura, win the Kafka Prize, named
after the (ostensibly unrelated) author Franz
Kafka.  That, in itself, could serve as a
subject for one of his books, permeated as
they are with similitude, chance and a fickle
destiny.
ROGUES GALLERY:
HARUKI MURAKAMI
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Nakata, one of the two key protagonists of this
novel, commits a murder in the early pages of
Kafka
on the Shore
.  Or so it seems—the details are so
surreal, the whole scene might be a hallucination.  
Nakata has stumbled upon a strange figure dressed
in the garb of
Johnnie Walker, the famous figure
from the logo for a popular
brand of Scotch whisky, who
murders cats and eats their
entrails.  Nakata is not just a
cat lover, but he regularly
converses with felines—yes,
you can already see that this
a peculiar book—and in a fit
of passion he kills Johnnie
Walker by stabbing him
twice in the ribs.

Kafka Tamura, our other protagonist, is nowhere near
the scene of this crime, but he awakes on the site of a
Shinto shrine, covered with blood—but apparently not
his own.  He soon learns that his father, the famous
sculptor Koichi Tamura—who may or may not be the
aforementioned Johnny Walker—has been murdered,
and that the police are seeking the missing son for
questioning.   

These two heroes Nakata and Kafka, pursue their
complementary but distinct stories in alternating
chapters, in a story in which other identity confusions
abound.  To amplify the Oedipal overtones of the
murder mystery, Murakami also develops an eerie
relationship between Kafka, now a runaway in a distant
city, with a mysterious woman, Miss Saeki, who may or
may not be his own mother.   Talk about a riddle,
wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; no wonder,
when the Japanese publisher of
Kafka on the Shore set up
a website allowing readers to ask questions of the author,
some 8,000 were submitted.  

Welcome to the murky world of Murakami.  Fifty years
ago, if you had asked literary critics to forecast the future
course of the novel, they probably would have predicted
a great awakening of wordplay and experimentation with
language. But they would have been wrong. Many of the
most provocative writers of recent decades have stuck to
conventional sentences and normal syntax (pace Joyce).
Yet they have made daring explorations of the nature of
reality. In short, their progressive tendencies have
proven to be metaphysical rather than linguistic.  This re-
examination of the real is at the heart of the fantastical
landscapes of
Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the pulp fiction-
ish narratives of
Philip K. Dick, the ‘alternative universe’
histories of
Michael Chabon and Philip Roth, and the sci-
fi scenarios of
Wallace's Infinite Jest, McCarthy's The Road
and
Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Indeed, the pervasive
incorporation of sci-fi plots into serious fiction, from
Kazuo Ishiguro to
Jonathan Lethem, is a recurring and
unmistakable sign of this pronounced shift in the literary
weather.

Few writers have poked more holes in conventional
notions of reality than the Japanese novelist Haruki
Murakami. Other authors have explored what has come
to be known as "magical realism," but most of them—
such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier and
Ben Okri—have set their visionary tales in Third World
locales where myth and folklore loom large over the
cultural landscape. In these environments, magical
realism seems a natural extension of an on-going and
tradition-laden literary dialogue. But Murakami concocts
his magical stories in the midst of affluent modern-day
consumer settings. When fish start falling from the sky
or cats talk to humans—typical occurrences in the world
of
Kafka on the Shore—it is amid the hustle and bustle of
contemporary Japanese urban life. This ability to capture
the phantasmagorical in the thick of commuter traffic,
broadband Internet connections and high-rise
architecture is the distinctive calling card of Murakami.
Like magician David Copperfield making the Statue of
Liberty disappear (or at least
seem to disappear), Murakami
mesmerizes us by working his legerdemain in places
where reality would seem to be rock solid.

Murakami started off as the J.D. Salinger of Japan, rising
to fame with his very successful
Norwegian Wood (1987).
This was straight-forward narrative, without any talking
cats, but even here the novelist showed a pronounced
interest in off-kilter characters with mental problems of
various sorts and degrees, thus presaging his later shift
into murkier psychic waters. By the time we get to his
masterful
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), the reader
can no longer tell the difference between reality and
fantasy. The protagonist can walk through walls and heal
people by laying on hands. Or can he? The closer you
look at the story, the more it blurs around the edges.

With
Kafka on the Shore, Murakami combines the coming-
of-age theme of
Norwegian Wood with the magical realism
of
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The result is a novel that
defies the laws of physics as well as the less easily
enforced rules of conventional narrative fiction. Yet
Murakami also relies on elements familiar from romance
and mystery novel.   Is Kafka guilty of the murder of his
father?   Can this question even be answered using the
conventional clues and evidence of crime novels?  
In typical Murakami fashion, the author sets out a trail of
surrounding circumstances that seem to undermine
conventional notions of guilt and innocence.  

Several other rich, puzzling stories are woven into
Kafka's tale. Satoru Nakata, a strange old man with
paranormal powers he can scarcely control or
understand, is one of the most engaging characters in
Murakami’s oeuvre.  After getting mixed up in the same
murder scene that Kafka is fleeing, he embarks on a
strange vision quest to set things aright, accompanied by
an amiable truck driver. Much of this extraordinary sub-
plot seems to take place in some middle ground between
quotidian reality and dream landscape.

Then we have Miss Saeki, manager of the private library
where Kafka takes refuge. She also appears to be
running away from something, and the loose ends of her
enigmatic past may hold the solution to our young
runaway’s own personal tragedy. Along the way, we
encounter a rogue’s gallery of magical personae drawn
from consumer goods—in addition to Johnnie Walker,
Colonel Sanders makes an appearance—who play some
of the strangest cameo roles you will find anywhere in
contemporary fiction.

The end result is a novel of constantly shifting ground.
At times,
Kafka on the Shore takes on the overtones of
Greek tragedy, but then a short while later it seems to
plunge into the mystical world of Jungian archetypes. It
mixes Bildungsroman and fantasy and conventional
urban narratives into a strange combination that defies
the reader’s best attempt to categorize and pigeonhole.
In short, this is Murakami territory, a beguiling landscape
that only exists inside his visionary novels, and which is
realized with particular intensity in
Kafka on the Shore.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
RETURN TO HOME PAGE
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Click on image to purchase

Further Clues:

Interview with Haruki Murakami by Laura Miller

Haruki Murakami Resources

Kafka on the Shore reviewed by John Updike in The New
Yorker
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
Recommended Sites:

Conceptual Fiction
Great Books Guide
The New Canon
Ted Gioia's homepage
Ted Gioia (on Twitter)

American Fiction Notes
The Art of Reading
The Big Read
Blographia Literaria
Books, Inq.
Bookslut
Booksquare
A Commonplace Blog
Conversational Reading
Crimespree Magazine
Critical Mass
Dana Gioia
The Elegant Variation
Fictionaut
In Search of the Classic Mystery
Joseph Peschel
Light Reading
The Literary Saloon
Los Angeles Review of Books
Maud Newton
The Millions
The Misread City
Nota Bene Books
Open Letters Monthly
Readerville
The Reading Experience
Reviews and Responses
Tipping My Fedora
Waggish
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Return to Home Page

Contact Info:
tedgioia@hotmail.com
www.tedgioia.com

Disclosure: This site and its sister sites may
receive promotional copies of works under
review and discussion.