Book Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is an internationally known best-selling author known for his works of magic realism, fantasy, and science fiction. The two previous books I have read by him, though, Men Without Women: Stories and the novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage have been mainstream efforts. Since this novel is of moderate length compared to some of his other doorstoppers such as the massive novel IQ84, I decided to give it a try.

Kafka on the Shore follows two story lines that converge at the end in a surreal manner, although the protagonists of the two arcs never meet. One line follows a fifteen-year-old boy who has given himself the first name of Kafka. His account is narrated in first person present tense. He runs away from home, fleeing an abusive father. His mother and sister left when he was young, and he has no way to contact them. With only a backpack holding a few belongings he journeys to a distant city, where a young woman named Sakura helps him orient himself. He then finds a private library in an isolated area, befriends Oshima, the librarian, and has an affair with Miss Saiki, the administrator.

The parallel story tells of an old man named Nakata whose intelligence and memory was all but wiped out by a mystical experience when he was a child. Nakata is simple-minded, but he is more or less content with his life; plus he has the ability to talk to cats. After committing a murder that appears to take place in a dream, Nakata also embarks upon a quest. Along the way, he meets a congenial truck driver named Hoshino, and the two men travel together. Nakata is concerned with finding an entrance stone, a portal into a strange alternate reality. It soon becomes apparent that this relates to the odyssey that Kafka has undertaken.

It also becomes apparent as the novel progresses that Murakami is undertaking a modern retelling of the story of Oedipus. According to Greek mythology, Oedipus fulfills a tragic prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother. Kafka believes that he is cursed to murder his father and have sex with both his mother and his sister. Murakami is intricately evasive about how all this plays out in a scenario rife with dreams whose activities have consequences in real life and an alternate world that the entrance stone opens where time works differently.

I don’t want to give too much away, because that would deprive you of the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Despite the tragic, sometimes puzzling, sometimes gruesome, and sometimes erotic narrative, Murakami holds the story together with consummate skill. Sometimes when other writers attempt stylistic flourishes such as switching back and forth from first person present tense to third person past tense to accounts taken from reportage, the efforts come across as contrived. However, Murakami makes the complex narrative seem effortless and easy to follow. He is a very talented writer who brings considerable skill and imagination to his tale. Get hold of a copy and find out for yourself.

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