One of my friends recently lent me a book that sounded interesting, although I can’t remember what she said that made me want to read it. I only remember thinking that it was something I would like to borrow from her when she finished it, and well… here we are.
Kafka On the Shore is definitely one of the stranger books I’ve read this year, and also one of the few books that have stood out to me lately. I can’t exactly sum up what made it so special in a few sentences; this was a pretty surreal story that’s difficult to talk about. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to attempt making a post about it, but I’m trying to get my upload schedule back on track so I decided to make an attempt at sharing my feelings about this book.
I guess a basic plot summary is a good place to start. Kafka On the Shore starts out with Kafka, who just turned fifteen, running away from home. We learn he lives alone with his father, who he can’t stand, and that he used to have a mother and adopted sister living with them until they both left without a trace one day. While on a bus, he befriends an older girl named Sakura. After a bit of conversing, she decides that fate crossed their paths and gives Kafka her phone number, encouraging him to call her if he runs into any problems.
One evening, Kafka loses consciousness and wakes up covered in blood. Unsure of what to do or where to go, he calls Sakura and crashes at her apartment. He tells her about how his mother and sister left, and coincidentally Sakura is a possible match for his potential sister (although Sakura herself says her past and his past don’t match up). He can’t sleep, so naturally Sakura invites him into her bed and gives him a handjob. She won’t have sex with him, though, because she has a boyfriend. Not sure why a handjob’s okay in that situation and sex isn’t, but what the hell do I know. Also don’t know why Sakura tells Kafka she wishes she was his sister after the fact.
Kafka leaves in the morning and eventually stumbles upon the Komura Memorial Library, a private library open to the public and home to many rare books. Kafka takes an immediate attraction to the place and spends a couple of days reading while he figures out what his next move is. He becomes friendly with the sole employee of the library (other than the owner), Oshima, and the two become fast friends. After learning a little bit about Kafka’s situation, Oshima offers him a job at the library as well as its spare room to use as residence. But he needs to talk with the owner, Miss Saeki, first. So in the meantime, Oshima drives Kafka to his family’s cabin in the woods. It’s a couple of hours away and secluded from civilization, perfect for Kafka to read and think without people disturbing him.
Kafka isn’t the only character we follow, however. Each chapter switches between Kafka and an elderly, mentally disabled man named Nakata. At first we only get reports on what happened to Nakata as a child: while on a school trip during World War II, an unknown sensation caused all the children in his class to lose consciousness and unfortunately, Nakata was the only one that awoke without keeping his ability to read and function as well as he should compared to his peers.
Eventually we get to a chapter that features Nakata during the present, while the events with Kafka are taking place. Despite his limitations, Nakata did come out of his childhood incident with an unusual gift: he could speak with cats. While he gets a subsidy from the governor to cover his living expenses, he also locates missing cats for some extra cash. He keeps the fact he can talk with them a secret (he feels like other people think of him as dumb enough without that crazy claim), but his clients like him and are pleased when he brings the cats back to them.
Nakata is searching for a family’s cat when he learns that someone in the area has been kidnapping strays. Nakata fears the cat he’s looking for may have fallen victim to this person’s evil deeds and waits around the area where cats have been known to disappear. A dog eventually appears and tells Nakata to follow him back to his master’s house. When he arrives, he meets a man that goes by the alias Johnnie Walker (yes, like the whisky). Johnnie Walker explains to Nakata that he’s collecting cat souls to make some kind of… flute? For… reasons? Unfortunately, this is where some of the more surreal aspects of the story start to unfold. We’re never given a clear answer about who or what Johnnie Walker is, or what his intentions are. There’s an implication that he may actually be Kafka’s father, but even that’s ambiguous.
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Johnnie Walker gives Nakata an ultimatum: he’s going to kill and dissect the cats he’s recently collected in front of Nakata, including the cat that Nakata’s searching for, until Nakata kills Johnnie Walker. Nakata’s doesn’t feel like he’s capable of killing another person, so unfortunately he witnesses Johnnie Walker’s killings one by one until Nakata loses his cool and kills him. As a lover of cats, I can say this was easily the hardest part of the book to get through. Like the rest of the book, it’s littered with elongated descriptions. If you’re a cat or animal lover, or even just squeamish, be prepared if you decide to read this. It’s only one part, but still… I love cats and prefer not to be unprepared for cat mutilation. 😦
The story switches back and forth every chapter, and the two main characters go on their own journeys that seem like they should intersect at some point, especially because there’s some implication that Kafka and Nakata are two parts of the same soul or something vague and mysterious like that, but they never do. Kafka eventually meets the owner of the Komura Memorial Library, Miss Saeki. An older woman (I think in her fifties?), she lost her boyfriend during college due to an act of violence, disappeared in despair, and returned one day to take over his family’s library. She doesn’t like to talk about herself or her past. In fact, we only find out anything about her through Oshima confiding in Kafka. She also produced an album called Kafka On the Shore, which Kafka finds and loves. An apparition of a fifteen year old Miss Saeki appears at night in his room, and he falls in love with both her and the middle aged Miss Saeki. He ends up having sex with both of them because… well, I’m not really too sure. Just another strange part of the book, I guess. And like Sakura, it’s implied that Miss Saeki is related to Kafka. So in addition to sister-brother sex (sort of), we have mother-son sex. I’m sort of wondering if Haruki Murakami intended these events to act like a “becoming one with someone” sort of thing, maybe representing his sister and mother returning back to his life and filling the voids they’ve left, but in the end it still just comes off as incest to me.
Meanwhile, Nakata loses his ability to talk with cats (something I would personally find to be devastating, but Nakata seems pretty indifferent towards it). He confesses to the police that he murdered Johnnie Walker, but due to Nakata’s odd mannerisms and poor communication, the officer he confides in doesn’t take him seriously. Nakata hitchhikes across Japan looking for something, going on a pure gut instinct that he’s supposed to look for an unknown thing for an unknown purpose and that he’ll know what it is and what he has to do when he finds it. He eventually befriends a trucker named Hoshino, who takes a real liking to Nakata because he reminds him of his deceased grandfather. Hoshino’s a little rough around the edges, but he seems like a pretty nice guy.
Honestly, I found the parts of the book with Nakata and Hoshino bantering to be the most interesting. Not that Kafka’s story wasn’t appealing, but I kept finding myself excited to see what would happen next with Nakata and Hoshino and a little disappointed when the chapter ended and I’d have to go back to Kafka.
Hoshino eventually runs into some kind of pimp named Colonel Sanders (yes, like the KFC guy), who helps him find this big… rock, I guess? He helps Hoshino find this big rock called the entrance stone and brings it back to Nakata. Nakata has a revelation that he’s supposed to open the entrance stone. Whatever that means. After struggling with it, Hoshino manages to flip it over and that does the trick, I guess. Then he has to wait for something else to happen to close it back up.
Nakata eventually finds the place he’s looking for, which turns out to be the Komura Memorial Library. And no, Kafka’s not there. The police keep nosing around looking for him, because a) he ran away from home and b) his father died shortly after he left (hinted but not confirmed to be Johnnie Walker). So Hoshino drives Kafka back to the cabin to lay low for a while, and… well, things get even more surreal from here.
Kafka finds two soldiers from World War II in the woods, and they lead him to some strange community of… I’m not sure. Ghosts of past selves, maybe? The only person we see Kafka interact with is the fifteen year old Miss Saeki, who chats with him a bit but explains nothing about what’s happening. Kafka initially wants to stay but after talking with this version of Miss Saeki, he decides he wants to go back to his old world.
While this is going on, Nakata meets Miss Saeki. She asks him to take the memoirs of her life and burn them for her. And then she dies. He burns them and shortly after, Nakata dies. Hoshino apparently inherited his ability to talk with cats, because a cat tells him he needs to wait around to close the entrance stone before something happens. He does, and when a weird, dark, insect-like creature crawls out of Nakata’s mouth, Hoshino decides it’s the right time to close it. Whatever that means.
Kafka leaves the community just in time (I think it’s related to the entrance stone, but I’m not sure in what way) and reunites with Oshima. He tells Kafka of Miss Saeki’s death, but he already knows somehow. He decides he’s going to go back home and finish school and… that’s it.
So if you haven’t picked up on it by now, Kafka On the Shore is very vague about a lot of things. A description on the back of the book as well as in several reviews I’ve skimmed call this book metaphysical, which I honestly still don’t fully comprehend the meaning of. To me, it’s a surreal mystery where no questions are really answered. I’ve heard this book isn’t supposed to give you answers, that you’ll understand it more if you read it multiple times, and that it’s more comprehensible if you read a couple of his earlier books first, but I can’t really say for sure one way or the other. It’s a strange book because despite the weird events and surreal tone, it’s cemented in reality. It’s not like Kafka gains super powers or anything, it still feels like a work of literary fiction, but I personally think that doesn’t mix well with the more open-ended aspects of the book. It’s an experience that I felt was too vague in the overall purpose of the book.
Despite this though, the read itself was great. Maybe it was because I enjoyed reading about a Japanese environment and people, or maybe it was because it was written almost poetically, but my time spent reading this book, despite the confusion, was a very relaxing experience. If I had to make a strange comparison, much of this book felt like those slow, quiet moments in earlier episodes of certain anime shows I used to watch. There’s a focus on the mundane, with elongated details about car rides, making coffee, etc. Characters will have conversations about completely random topics that are never brought up again or lead anywhere. And in most other books (or any story-telling medium, really), I’d label this as a negative.
But here… I don’t know, it just worked for me. Despite some of the events, this was a very peaceful and enjoyable read. It was almost 500 pages, but it went by pretty fast and I didn’t really want to put it down despite very little happening within a reasonable amount of time. I feel the experience these characters had with each other was a huge part of this book’s charm, and was the reason I kept going. It wasn’t for the answers to the book’s mysteries, that’s for sure.
I’d recommend reading it if you’re looking for something different, surreal, foreign, etc. Kafka On the Shore isn’t for everybody, and it’s far from perfect, but it was pleasantly refreshing and really drew me in. And if any of you out there have already read it, let me know what you think! I’m very curious to hear other readers’ interpretations of this book.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re having a great week! 🙂
Info for my edition of Kafka On the Shore:
Published 2006 by Vintage International
Paperback, 467 pages