Reading your first Haruki Murakami novel is a bit like trying lobster for the first time. It’s got quite a culinary reputation: you know it’s a sophisticated dish, that it satisfies a refined palate, but fear it might be an acquired taste. You may be on the verge of an amazing experience, but you might also suffer a nasty allergic reaction. Well my first Murakami novel was Kafka on the Shore and I seem to have emerged from the odyssey undamaged. I found it mystical, engaging, clever and innovative, but I also thought it pulled its metaphysical punches.
Two strands of narrative intertwine. In one plot, Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old runaway, is escaping the influence of a father who he fears will damage him psychologically if he stays. Kafka’s mother and sister left when he was only four years old. His memories of them are potent if hazy, for he knows something essential left his life with them. His father has placed him under a strange prophesy, one that claims he will kill his father and sleep with both his mother and his sister, and like Oedipus before him, Kafka is running away from the curse at the same time as he is running towards it.
In the other part of the narrative, X-File type documents detail a strange occurrence that took place in 1944, when a group of school children, mushrooming in the woods, glimpsed something in the sky that might have been a UFO before all falling into a comatose sleep. The children recovered without significant effects, apart from one child, subject that day to a violent attack by his teacher, who took months to come round and who was mentally impaired when he did. In the up-to-date world of the story, that small child is now the elderly Nakata, a humble harmless soul who understands very little and can’t read, but who can talk to cats. In fact, finding lost cats is what constitutes an occupation for him, and it’s on the trail of a lost cat that he is lured into the den of the evil Johnnie Walker. Walker traps and kills cats in order to eat their hearts and use their souls to make special flutes (still with me in the back row?). He taunts and abuses Nakata with his cat murdering until Nakata stabs him to death in a blind fury.
It’s at this point that Kafka wakes up covered in someone else’s blood after a blackout. A few days later, he reads in the papers that his own father has been stabbed to death in an enigmatic crime. Could he have unwittingly fulfilled part of his father’s prophecy? Is the evil Johnnie Walker the same person as the sculptor Koichi Tamura? Well, the horror of what he has done propels old Nakata off on a journey of his own, following unconsciously in the footsteps of Kafka, with only the kindness of strangers to help him and his own exotic abilities to make fish and leeches rain from the sky. Clearly the two destines of these men – one old and poor, the other young and homeless, both with nothing but uncanny intuition to guide them – are set to strike sparks off each other, but to what end?
Kafka finds himself a temporary home in a private library, acting as assistant to hermaphrodite haemophiliac Oshima (you don’t come across those every day). They both work for the enigmatic Miss Saki, a woman whose life has been stilled, Miss Haversham-like, by the pointless death of her fiancé. Kafka is quickly convinced that Miss Saki is his mother, particularly when her 15-year-old self starts appearing to him at night as a ghost. In the meantime, Nakata has found himself a companion in the form of a most endearing ponytail-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-wearing lorry driver, Hoshino, who has given him a lift in this truck and decided to stay on and help him in his quest, mostly out of curosity to see what Nakata will do next.
There’s a particularly engaging quality to Murakami’s prose that kept me reading despite the bizarre nature of the fictional events. I’m not normally very good with what’s not real, hence my tendency to dislike satire, farce and other exaggerated modes of narrative. But Murakami keeps one eye firmly on the metaphysical at all times. ‘Everything is metaphor’, becomes something of a catchphrase for the novel, as does the notion ‘in dreams begin responsibilities’. In this way, the real and unreal are tightly bound together, what happens clearly means much more than just ‘what happens’, and the reader is convinced that the separate quests of Kafka and Nakata must lead to climactic events dense with metaphysical meaning. Both men – like the cats Nakata saves from the clutches of Johnnie Walker – have lost their souls for reasons they do not understand, and are searching for that most alluring of human qualities – wholeness and integrity. At the same time, the narrative is rich with allusions and echoes, symbolism abounds, the story is packed with tempting little cul-de-sacs of meaning, that may or may not be the sort of red herring Nakata can make fall from the sky. This is what Murakami makes you do throughout the reading process – he invites you to I-spy your families of symbols, to mix and match the details of the two plotlines, to spot the clues in this most literary of treasure hunts.
But when it comes to saying what it all means, Murakami goes coy. The book made me think of controversial psychoanalyst Massud Khan, who declared that dreams don’t necessarily mean anything – the point is being able to dream them. For instance, noble savage, Nakata, has all the answers by never knowing what will happen until he he is in the moment. Murakami’s characters are rewarded by trusting to the unfolding of events; they may be overloaded with imaginative possibilities and full of suspicions but they move forward in a sort of protective ignorance, one that cannot be punctured. (Mr Litlove pointed out that this is a very common element in all male lone hero stories – James Bond, Indiana Jones, all throw themselves into a quest without thinking or feeling and get rewarded with special protection.) As the story progresses, more and more emphasis is placed on everything that is important being at the same time beyond words. Enigma rules.
And this seems to include emotions, too. This is very much a cerebral book, all head, very little heart. When Kafka ‘rapes’ his sister in a dream, the event steadfastly refuses to provoke any real emotion in him, and does its best not to arouse any in the reader. The two characters discuss the situation calmly, and whilst Kafka knows he has reached the part of himself he does not like, that he wishes to reject, there is no catharsis in this moment. Or if there is, it happens in an elsewhere in the narrative, beyond the words. (Kafka’s story disappointed me, I admit – I felt Kafka had a lot of the sort of sex a middle-aged novelist might well wish he’d experienced as an adolescent and not much else, in the end, but that’s just a personal point.)
These contradictions in the foundation of the novel were very intriguing, I felt. It’s a book about profound revelations that can only think them, conjuring them out of metaphors, and it’s a book rich in metaphysics that will not put words to the numinous and the ineffable – which is, after all, what metaphysics exists to articulate. It is a continual metaphysical tease, and how much you like it will, I think, depend on how much you like being teased with possibilities that rarely come to anything. Myself, I think teasers have to make good on their innudendo at some point, to show me what they’re made of, as it were. But at the same time, I understand the lure of going on an adventure and staying safe at the same time, which is the advantage of journeys of the imagination. Nothing need ever be lost in the imaginative world of Murakami, for that is precisely the greatest power of the imagination – it’s ability to transform and recreate and proliferate without end. For imagination he is justly renouned, but if you want explanations, you might break out in hives.