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NAX40512 - MURAKAMI, H.: Kafka on the Shore (Unabridged)
Haruki Murakami Kafka on the Shore
Sean Barrett - Narrator
The characters in much of Haruki Murakami’s fiction live in between worlds; or at least they find themselves confronted with more than the standard reality of contemporary life. To some extent, this is true of their creator as well. He has gone beyond being a highly regarded Japanese writer with an attentive following abroad to one that is seen by some almost as a Western writer with Japanese roots.
Murakami creates a portrait of 21st-century uncertainty and consumerism standing unapologetically alongside—or interrupted by—a fantastic otherworld. In Kafka on the Shore, a truck driver is approached by an ‘insensate being’ in the form of KFC’s Colonel Sanders who acts as a fast-talking pimp, introducing the driver to a Hegel-quoting whore; there are soldiers, unaged since the war, guarding an entrance to an alternative world of disquieting acquiescence; ectoplasmic apparitions with violent intentions; talking animals; and rain consisting of leeches or mackerel and sardines—quite apart from literal elements of the Oedipal myth, epicoene haemophiliacs and the shadows of those who have glimpsed beyond the natural world. As Murakami says himself, he writes weird stories.
In this novel, his 12th book to be translated into English, he actually tells two tales, interweaving them in alternate chapters, although the connection is by no means clear to begin with.
The hero and narrator of half the book is a precocious 15-year-old, Kafka Tamura, driven from home by his overbearing sculptor father. An unexplained instinct is forcing Kafka towards a library where he befriends the highly cultured Oshima and the elegant Miss Saeki, who may be his mother.
Meanwhile, the tender figure of Satoru Nakata is the central character of the other chapters. He was affected by a childhood incident that left him unable to read, but able to talk to cats. He is drawn into a world of surreal violence (cat-lovers may need to steel themselves for the encounter) that sets him off on a quest for something he will only know when he discovers it.
The two strands of the book are brought together but, as throughout the novel, this is possible to a large extent because of the interplay between the real world of trucks and trains and food, and the various limbos and after-lives concerned with teachings, choices and supernatural dangers.
Throughout, there are excursions into philosophy, the nature and purpose of art, discussions on Japanese literature; and themes that feature in other novels and short stories also make an appearance—Japan’s history (especially its wars), a loner in the woods, cats, and music.
There are echoes of The Catcher in the Rye in Kafka’s telling of his story, which is unsurprising for two reasons. First, Murakami was translating Salinger’s modern classic into Japanese while creating Kafka; and second, Murakami’s attitude to Western culture is inclusive and welcoming. A profound love of jazz and pop, as well as much of the Western classical canon, runs through most of his work with the insistence of a soundtrack. He name-checks global brands. He translates American authors, and cites them as influences (Carver, Capote and Fitzgerald, for example). But possibly more significantly, his characters speak and respond to the world in a way that seems entirely at home with a Western perspective. Murakami is by no means the stereotypical Japanese man. He has said that he feels like an outsider in his own country, although his views shifted after the Kobe earthquake and the poison-gas attacks on Japan’s underground.
Certainly he has never had an easy relationship with his home country. Born in 1949, he became uncomfortable with those traditions that seemed to represent a Japan that he did not want to be a part of. He turned instead to 19th-century European literature and contemporary American music in the mid to late sixties and found them far more to his taste—freer, more expressive and inspiring. He began writing in a manner as bizarre and yet commonplace as any of his fictions. He was watching a baseball match, and after a particular hit decided to write a novel. So he did. But his successes forced him to leave his home and travel; and he also chose to spend some years in America teaching, adding to the sense that he was not comfortable in Japan.
In the literary world, there are critics in Japan who regard him as having, in effect, sold out; and who suggest that he is not attempting real literature in the true tradition. Meanwhile, for Western readers, he seems to be able to encapsulate something of their deeper moral concerns without sacrificing readability, and does so with reference to what they know. But Murakami is drawing from a much deeper well than, for example, magical realism, or 19th- and 20th-century English-speaking literature, and one that is sourced very much at home. Japanese fiction, from folk tales through the 1,000-year-old Tale of Genji (which is discussed in Kafka on the Shore) and beyond, has incorporated the spirit world with much greater ease than the West. We may have ghost stories or fairy godmothers, occasional magic or fantastical powers, but these are either exceptional interventions or part of an entirely separate world that comes into brief contact with the human one. In the Japanese tradition, the existence of spirits that are a part of (and take part in) the real and physical world is taken much more for granted.
This is a profoundly Japanese core in Murakami’s work. While his fantasies may spin with the fluidity of jazz, while he may cite American singers and German composers, and be compared to Camus and even the original Kafka, these stories can trace their ancestry back farther than any European tradition. In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami makes a point of discussing and mentioning great works of Japanese literature. If, as some of his characters do, he does exist between two worlds, he seems keen to introduce them to each other.
Notes by Roy McMillan
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