Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
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
Essay 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 writes on music, literature and pop culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: S
eptember 17, 2008
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Further Clues:

Interview with Haruki Murakami by Laura Miller

Haruki Murakami Resources

Kafka on the Shore reviewed by John Updike in The New Yorker
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