Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami

Voyager didn’t arrive for ages! I had to order a replacement copy. Kafka on the Shore, which I bought while we were evacuated after the big typhoon in October, had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I already read Murakami’s drama novel Norwegian Wood, and upon reading a review for it, a reader said that Kafka was much better, so I decided to check it out.

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Kafka on the Shore follows the fortunes of two remarkable characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home at fifteen, under the shadow of his father’s dark prophesy. The aging Nakata, tracker of lost cats, who never recovered from a bizarre childhood affliction, finds his pleasantly simplified life suddenly turned upside down. Their parallel odysseys are enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerising dramas. Cats converse with people; fish tumble from the sky; a ghostlike pimp deploys a Hegel-spouting girl of the night; a forest harbours soldiers apparently un-aged since WWII. There is a savage killing, but the identity of both victim and killer is a riddle. Murakami’s novel is at once a classic quest, but it is also a bold exploration of mythic and contemporary taboos, of patricide, of mother-love, of sister-love. Above all it is an entertainment of a very high order.

Murakami’s prose is easy to follow and fluent enough where it doesn’t fall flat. I read the English version, and I’m sure the translator followed the original writing as close as possible.

That being said, there were some unusual things happening with tenses. The story follows two characters, a fifteen-year-old boy running away from home called Kafka Tamura (his first name being a new identity for himself, though we never learn his real name) and Nakata, a sixty-something old man who, after an accident when he was young, was left “stupid,” unable to read or write, but with the strange ability to communicate with cats.

Nakata’s chapters are in third person past tense whereas Kafka’s are written in first person present tense. Though I’ve never seen this before and thought it was a bit weird, it made it very easy to tell whose chapter I was on. Some other books I’ve read that flit between characters’ points of view don’t do a good job of distinguishing the voices. It was easy to get used to. However, a few times in the book the tense changed mid-paragraph, such as going into second person when Crow was speaking. This was jarring and unnecessary.

The story itself was pretty cool and original. Without giving too much away, there was Nakata and his strange ability to talk to cats and know things he shouldn’t, a vile villain, and odd, dreamlike happenings. Everything had a metaphor, I suppose. Although Nakata and Kafka never actually meet, their fates are intertwined, and many things one character does are essential for another character’s story.

I wasn’t completely blown away by Kafka on the Shore, however. I found myself hoping that all the bizarre events in the story would have a logical explanation at the end, a twist that would explain everything. A little pedantic, maybe, but I wanted to know why. Why can Nakata communicate with cats? Who are the villain and the oddly helpful individual who crops up now and then? Are they the same person? What is the strange phenomenon that caused Nakata’s accident? Though some things were explained, it was only a small portion. Though it’s what I expected, I was still left disappointed.

It’s probably personal taste, but I prefer stories that explain the hows and whys. Just throwing leeches falling from the sky and talking cats feels cheap and just doing it to be edgy and different. I did some digging and found that Murakami said that “he wants people to find meanings by themselves,” which to me could mean that they have no meaning, and they were just there for shock value or to be unique.

That being said, I did quite enjoy this book. The characters were solid, the prose interesting. I especially liked the descriptions of the library. Murakami is famous for having a lot of sex in his books, and this one is no different, but they were handled tastefully and were written in a surreal, dreamlike way that I liked. Overall, Kafka on the Shore gets three stars out of five.

3stars

Get Kafka on the Shore on Amazon UK
Get Kafka on the Shore on Amazon US

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