Music, Myth and Metaphor in Murakami's Kafka on the Shore

cover image: Vintage
There has been a lot of buzz recently about Haruki Murakami all due to, I'm sure, the fact that his new novel, 1Q84, is about to be released in the US in a week or two. The fresh work, which is already a best-seller in Japan, has been lauded by critics and hyped to death, yet I can't help but be piqued by a book deriving it's title from the seminal work of George Orwell. The Q in the title represents a question, an unknown link in time, as the protagonist finds herself suddenly transported to a sort of parallel universe. This is a theme Murakami is fond of, as is in evidence in his, so far, penultimate novel, Kafka on the Shore.

Except, in this book, Murakami places his protagonists on a parallel yet somehow sureally intersecting plane of destiny. The main characters, troubled confused Kafka Samura who's just turned fifteen and the intellectually challenged, yet psychically gifted retiree, Satoru Nakata are both on quests: one running away from a troubling childhood, the other rushing toward redemption. In the course of their concurrent journeys they both alter and advance each other's lives in unexpected ways. Throughout, Murakami's narrative oscillates between different levels of reality and perception: Ghosts are dreamed projections of one's living self from a different time and place. While on a mushroom gathering outing, children fall into a fugue state for no apparent reason, resulting in one of them, Nakata, being altered permanently. Kafka, hiking through remote woods, seemingly transcends realms. People talk to cats, and a seemingly common white stone the size and shape of a rice cake takes on magical properties.

Even though it's a self proclaimed pseudonym, the name Kafka brands the boy with the existential tattoo of angst, isolation, and despair. Surreal and absurd experiences await him, it is all a matter of how he adapts and accepts or rejects them. His choices will affect not only the rest of his life but many others as well. Working in parallel is Nakata, who seems driven by some inter-dimensional metaphysical force. He is blissfully unaware of his purpose, being only certain that he has one.

For Murakami, music, myth and metaphor are important components in a meaningful story. He sees music as a kind of conduit to revelation. As Oshima-- a librarian who has befriended Kafka during his extended truancy from hard times-- drives the two of them to his cabin in the mountains, he reflects on the imperfection of a Schubert sonata:
"But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of—that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.
Another character, Hoshino, a truck driver who, after giving Nakata a ride, becomes inexorably entwined with the old man's quixotic pursuit, becomes enlightened after listening to Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio in a music shop and is similarly affected after watching Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Art imposes itself in Murakami's novel, influencing behavior, triggering memory, becoming a catalyst for growth.

Haruki Murakami
The Oedipal myth inserts itself into Kafka's world when his father lays a "prophecy" at his six-year-old feet. My father told me that "I will kill my father and be with my mother and sister", he confides to Oshima; a rough piece of news even if you are too young to fully understand its implications. Cursed as he might have been with these words, Kafka strives on some level to fulfill them. On their second trip to the mountains, this time to avoid the authorities, Oshima tries to reassure Kafka after he's received some life changing news:
“There are a lot of things that aren’t your fault. Or mine, either. Not the fault of prophecies, or curses, or DNA, or absurdity. Not the fault of Structuralism or the Third Industrial Revolution. We all die and disappear, but that’s because the mechanism of the world itself is built on destruction and loss. Our lives are just shadows of that guiding principle. Say the wind blows. It can be a strong, violent wind or a gentle breeze. But eventually every kind of wind dies out and disappears. Wind doesn’t have form. It’s just a movement of air. You should listen carefully, and then you’ll understand the metaphor.”
Murakami understands that all fiction is ultimately metaphor and  fills his novels with examples of it: Fish and leeches rain from the sky, Colonel Sanders (of KFC fame) shows up to guide our heroes, crows appear, cats talk, lightning strikes; all metaphors. When Oshima cautions Kafka about the woods near his cabin, he says:
The woods don’t scare me as much as they used to, either, and I’ve started to feel a kind of closeness and respect. That said, I don’t venture too far from the cabin, and stay on the path. As long as I follow these rules, it shouldn’t get too precarious. That’s the important thing—follow the rules and the woods will wordlessly accept me, sharing some of their peace and beauty. Cross the line, though, and beasts of silence lay in wait to maul me with razor-sharp claws.
A metaphor for navigating the volatile path of adolescence if I've ever heard one.

Along the way, Murakami liberally mixes in religion:
“'That things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.'”;
 philosophy:  
“'Well, think of what I’m doing to you right now. For me I’m the self, and you’re the object. For you, of course, it’s the exact opposite—you’re the self to you and I’m the object. And by exchanging self and object, we can project ourselves onto the other and gain self-consciousness. Volitionally.'”,
imagery:
"The massive bank of thunderclouds crossed the city at a lethargic pace, letting loose a flurry of lightning bolts as if probing every nook and cranny for a long-lost morality, finally dwindling to a faint, angry echo from the eastern sky."
But occasionally his dialogue starts to sound a bit cheesy, like something out of a badly dubbed anime:
"'...The boss’s blowing a gasket as we speak, I’ll bet. I phoned him and said I had to take a few days off to take care of something, but haven’t checked in since. Once I get back he’ll really let me have it.'”
In the end, Kafka on the Shore is really about self enlightenment, not just as a teenager reaches adulthood, but at every stage of our life. The possibilities for personal growth and change present themselves in sometimes ordinary or sometimes very odd ways. Murakami seems to tell us: transition and change can be difficult and sometimes terrifying, but to truly live one's life, it is imperative for the individual to summon the courage at least to confront these opportunities; whether we accept them or not is another story.

~Book Jones 4.5 stars

  • Reading level: Young Adult
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 3, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400079276
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400079278

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