Six Word Summary: Talking cats. Falling fish. Frigging crazy.
I rate it: 8.5/10
Goodreads describes Kafka on The Shore as “a tour de force of metaphysical reality”. I’m going to confess I have no idea what the word metaphysical means, or tour de force, for that matter, so I’m just going to say that Kafka on the Shore is a pretty crazy book. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, except with more incest, disembowelment, and talking cats… oh wait, no, we had talking cats in Alice.
Kafka Tamura, not his real name, is a fifteen year old boy who runs away from home because of a sort of Oedipal curse that prophesies that not only will he murder his father one day, but also sleep with his mother AND older sister. He finds refuge in a quaint little library managed by a transsexual woman, falls in love with the 15-year-old ghost of a 50-year old woman who still happens to be alive, and tries to lose himself in a dense forest in which two undead soldiers guarding a portal to another dimension.
Meanwhile, Nakata is an elderly, simple-minded man who can talk to cats and tracks them for a living. When he runs into Johnny Walker (of the whiskey, yes), who is addicted to gutting cats and eating their souls, his life goes topsy-turvy. Following some mysterious instructions that keep appearing in his brain, Nakata leaves town, hitching a ride with a friendly truck driver who becomes his grandson surrogate. They are looking for something, but they don’t know what yet. Oh, and Nakata may be the cause of the sudden showers of fish and leeches in and around Tokyo. And they meet Colonel Sanders of KFC. He is a pimp, except he is not a person. Interspersed with this story is the investigation report of a 50-year-old incident where 16 schoolchildren fainted simultaneously on a hill, nobody knows why.
If the last two paragraphs made any sense to you, you are a very sick person.
Surrealism means not merely different from realism, but above realism. Throughout Kafka on the Shore, that is the sense that you get, an experience that is above and beyond what you know to be real. Bizarre, yes, but also almost making sense. You do not often comprehend the narration, but you intuitively understand it, as though you had glimpsed at this sur-reality in the midst of your regular life but simply felt safer to ignore it till a popular Japanese writer rubbed your face in it.
Identity is one of the mysteries Kafka on the Shore plays with, without actually riding it hard. The story starts with a conversation between Kafka and The Boy Named Crow, who seems to be a sensible friend of his. Till you are few pages in, when you realize Kafka and The Boy Named Crow are the same person, or alter egos if you like. When Nakata gets involved in a violent crime, hundreds of miles away Kafka wakes up with blood on his shirt. Ms. Seiki is the tragic romantic manager of the library, but there is a thick chance that she is Kafka’s mother (doesn’t stop them from sleeping together, though). The man dressed as Johnny Walker is some sort of demon who eats cats, but could also be Kafka’s father. Identities have blurred boundaries in this book, anybody could be anybody else. It all depends on how you look at it.
The way Murakami weaves together Nakata and Kafka’s storyline such that they never touch and yet affect each other profoundly is something I’ve not really seen any other writer do so beautifully. If a book has two or more storylines, they unfailingly converge at least one point in the story. Not so in Kafka on the Shore. It’s like the two stories exist in two separate dimensions, where they influence each other without contact.
The one part of the book I wasn’t able to really digest was the truck driver Hoshino’s epic battle with the slug like thing in the end. That part seemed to have been added just for the sake of bizarreness, to give the weirdest possible climax to an already weird book. It doesn’t mean anything, even by Murakami standards.
I compared it to Alice in Wonderland in the first line, but Kafka on the Shore is more like Catcher in the Rye on LSD. I would not recommend it to anybody who is turned off by violence (particularly violence against cats), age-inappropriate sex, or craziness in any form. But if you are not afraid of a little surrealism in your life, please give Kafka on the Shore a try.
And by the way, this is my dog posto’s opinion about kafka on the shore. Posto has his own blog where he regularly bestows his much-needed wisdom upon naive humans. Please visit him for a dose of canine wisdom.
-Amritorupa “ a grin without a cat” Kanjilal