Murakami: Imagination Overload

kafka-on-the-shoreReading 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.



33 thoughts on “Murakami: Imagination Overload

  1. I must admit that I think in some ways Murakami is a writer that appeals more to the younger reader – his heroes seem to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence. I certainly went through a phase in my 20’s when I read everything by him I could find. The novel which made his name – Norwegian Wood – is much more realistic in style, and is very moving, while his later novels can start to feel quirky for quirkiness’s sake. Sometimes they work – I remember particularly liking The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – but sometimes they start to veer towards feeling a bit silly, and I eventually started to lose faith in him. His non-fiction books are worth checking out – Underground, about the Tokyo subway sarin attack, and What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, which is about marathon running.

    • I would love to try his non-fiction, and in other good news, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the other book of his I have on my shelf. Very interesting indeed what you say about his heroes and perpetual adolescence. I can imagine reading this in my 20s and yes, I think I would have been blown away. The desire to keep meaning full of potential is important in those early adult years. I would have loved the imaginative scope, without being niggled by the desire born of years and years of reading, teaching and thinking about literature to emerge with something solid from the reading.

  2. I too read Norwegian Wood but I’m not sure I entirely *got* him and I confess I’ve never particularly felt drawn to any more of his work – I tried Sputnik Sweetheart once but gave up. I don’t always need all the explanations, but I need to be able to work out what *I* think is the point of a book and I don’t think I could with him.

    • Yes, he frustrates any stable meaning creation, I think, which can be fun and annoying in equal measure! But he’s someone it’s definitely good to have tried.

  3. I am a huge fan of Murakami and I first read Norwegian wood (my first experience of him) when I was ~ 50. I think that Kafka on the Shore is a fabulous book, yes it has some slight weakness here and there but since I’ve never read anything I couldn’t pick out something not to my total taste that has not been an issue. I think you have written an absoultely excellent review of what for me is one of the most important (to me, I make no greater claim) books I have read as an adult.

    I would agree with Neil Ansell in that The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is excellent and I am also very fond of After Dark too.

    • I am so relieved that you liked the review! There is no such thing as a perfect book, even the books we love are bound by their nature to have flaws. And what he does works within the terms of his novel – whether one likes it or not is simply a matter of personal taste. Looks like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the one I’ll read when I want another Murakami then!

    • I do think mood is an important factor in choosing a book to read. I make a huge effort to get the two to coincide – I always feel it’s the least I owe the author!

  4. Well, you bravely jumped in the deep end with Kafka, and swam! I’m a huge Murakami fan but when trying to convert others I usually suggest South of the Border, West of the Sun. Much easier. My first was A Wild Sheep Chase over 15 years ago. I became hooked on his sheer wackiness which I thoroughly indulged with the three-volume 1Q84 earlier this year, very much an Alice in Wonderland book for me. There are recurrent themes and motifs in his writing but rather like Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract, I’ve come to the conclusion that the pleasure of Murakami is being along for the ride. I do hope you read more of his novels – I’d love to see what you think of them.

    • I didn’t know there was a shallow end! 🙂 I will make due note of the titles you mention, as I am pretty sure I will read Murakami again. I wonder whether it will be better now I’ve had some experience of his writing. I’d be interested to see which of his devices become regular elements of his novels. I can quite see the pleasure is in getting to the end, not in the conclusion itself, and that’s fine. I think I have to be in the mood for that, but there are definitely times when I am!

  5. Great post. I haven’t read much Murakami. I did enjoy The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – but found the main character such an empty shell. I then gave up on Norwegian Wood – couldn’t get into it at all. Kafka on the shore is my remaining Murakami on the bookshelf; we’ll see one day when I’m in the mood … 😉

    • I did think it was well worth reading, and I’m glad to know what he’s like now. I don’t think I will ever be a huge fan, but I did enjoy the book and he is very intriguing. I definitely think gauging the right bookish mood would be a necessity!

  6. I didn’t know what to expect when I first read this book…Murakami definitely caught me off guard. But I liked this book. I’ve read a few other Murakami books since, and they’re all a little odd…but I think that’s why I like them. Great review of a difficult book to summarize.

  7. This was my first Murakami, too, and I have read it twice. I immediately fell in love with his writing, but that is not to say I understand it. Perhaps my favorite quote of his, perhaps be used it comforts me is so much, is that he wants his readers to be “wide open to possibilities.” As that is the case, from the writer’s own mouth, I feel he has given me permission to leave some (many?) threads unanswered.

    • You remind me there was a quote I wanted to use (and of course completely forgot about when I was writing the post – as usual!) about how narrow minds are the most dangerous kind for a society, and that imagination is salvationary. I thought that was really interesting, and it’s quite in keeping with my own private thoughts! I really loved the first third of this novel, and then got a bit picky about the way events played out. But it intrigued me all the way through and he’s an author I’m pretty sure I’ll now read again. I think I’ll enjoy it more now I know to expect the unexpected! 🙂

  8. I don’t at all mind stretching my imagination but I haven’t ever quite got up the courage to read Murakami. A little grounding in reality usually works better for me, so every time I think I am going to give him a go–pick up one of his books from the library’s shelves (me, the reader who buys books at the drop of a hat–have not been tempted to buy one of his books for –later), read the blurb, and then usually quietly slip it back in its place. And didn’t I just tell you I was in the mood for something a little more challenging? Maybe one of his other books (which isn’t quite so long?). You do make the book sound very appealing though!

    • I’m just like you and I often slide back onto the shelf the books that seem a bit too challenging for me in the moment! I think it’s after all those years of having to read any and everything for the university. It was fun while it lasted, but now I really do like to choose what I’m sure I’m going to enjoy. In fact, the experience of reading Murakami was much easier than I expected, and there’s so many really gripping enigmas at the start of this that I was easily 150 pages in before I knew it. I did slow down later on, but that fast start kept me going. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, then he’s definitely an author to consider, and he seems to have written lots of books of differing lengths! It can be really good to start with something shorter, can’t it, when it’s a new author!

  9. I enjoyed the experience of reading my two Murakami novels (1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), but I enjoyed them mostly on the level of story and the feeling of being immersed, not on the level of putting ideas together and coming to conclusions. So it sounds like we’ve had similar experiences maybe? I liked those books, but I don’t feel an urgency to read more.

    • I like the way you put that: ‘on the level of the story and the feeling of being immersed’ – yes, that describes beautifully the engagement I felt with this novel. I’d definitely say we’d had very similar experiences. I’d like to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as I have a copy of it! But I doubt very much I’ll go on to read everything Murakami’s written. Oh, I’m quite intrigued by his non-fiction, too. Do you think you might try that one day? (Given we are both big non-fic fans!)

  10. I have minimal tolerance for being teased with possibilities that don’t come to anything, and I’m not in love with books that stay completely with cerebral. People I respect and admire love Murakami, and I have always suspected that I wouldn’t. You are wonderfully eloquent, Litlove! (in confirming what I already thought)

    • You have good instincts for your own reading preferences, dear Jenny. Murakami is definitely a very particular flavour of author, and I do think he’s someone you can tell in advance that you might not like. I’m always relieved when there’s one author I can cross off my enormous TBR list! 🙂

  11. I totally agree with you about certain books are acquired taste… just like sushis. I’m afraid ‘bizarre nature of the fictional events’ and far-fetched scenarios don’t go well with my system. I confess I’d tried to read Murakami before but his Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one title on my unfinished book list. Seems like you’re more resilient than I am. And of course, from your detailed review, there just are admirable elements in terms of style and content in it that hold your attention. Your post is most interesting.

    • Oh I can definitely see he’s a writer who would not please everyone. It’s a really particular kind of fictional world he’s interested in creating, and you have to have some sort of taste for the bizarre to appreciate it. I really wasn’t sure I’d like him at all, and was pleased when the book turned out to be more gripping than I’d feared. But I do perfectly understand why he’s not your cup of tea. Still, that only leaves several thousand authors who probably are! 🙂

  12. I love Murakami. I’ve read two of his books so far, 1Q84 and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Neither of them offer any explanations or if they do, they are only partial and never about the things you really want explained. But I don’t mind, I enjoy his writing and just go with the strange. I have this book on my shelf, I bought it close to when it was published thinking it would be my first Murakami. Didn’t work out that way. Maybe it will be my third 🙂 Do you think you will read any of his other novels?

    • I thought I remembered you saying you were a fan! Yes, going with the strange is definitely the way forward with his writing. I am pretty sure I’ll read him again. Definitely The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I’m interested to try his non-fiction, too. You should definitely read this one; I’m sure you’d love it.

  13. I’ve read Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border . . . both of which I really liked. I think he’s a bit hit and miss. All the trademarks are in all of his n ovels but sometimes it seems to get too quirky.
    You put me in the mood to read him again.

    • I hadn’t even heard of those titles! I can see I will have to look more closely at his complete catalogue. There sounds like quite a few of his books out there that are shorter and maybe a bit easier to get into than Kafka (though I did enjoy it). I can imagine that he could easily over-egg the pudding. And I definitely think he’s a mood choice – if you’re in the mood for him, he’d be wonderful.

  14. My first Murakami was Norwegian Wood which is a much more realistic novel. I eased into the more fantastical stuff with After Dark, which I liked, and then moved on to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my favorite so far. Next up I’m going to try his non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I find his more fantastical writing quite intriguing, something that works on me beyond the cognitive level. I’ve written about this on my blog. Murakami is definitely not for those who want things explained, as you point out!

  15. Pingback: Japanese Literature in January | Dolce Bellezza

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