Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

*all paintings courtesy of The Scholten-Japanese Art Gallery. Very cool stuff.

I finished reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’ about a week ago, but it has taken me that long to brood over the book to actually write about it. The book was passed on to me by a friend who said it was weird and that I might enjoy it. Thank you S. I am intrigued by all things weird, but what I found even more striking was the title. ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka was one of the first books I read in college and it had a profound effect on me. I felt an inexplicable connection with Gregor Samsa, and I have never been able to look at a cockroach the same way since reading that book. It had been a while since I had read anything mind blowing so I was excited about ‘Kafka on the Shore’.

The book was originally written in Japanese. Whenever reading translated books I tend to wonder how much of the books character and art form is lost in translation. With good books, as I have mentioned before, there is a certain poetic value, and unless the translator has a good grasp of both the languages they are working with, quite a lot of the marrow can be misplaced. Based on the version I read, I would say the narrative flowed very well but as the plot is based in Japan and the characters are immersed in modern and ancient Japanese culture, I felt some of the phrases or satirical references might not have packed as much of a punch as they the author might have intened. But at this point in life I think I can write off learning enough Russian or Japanese to really savor some of my favorite literature.

‘Kafka on the Shore’ is a bit of a mysterious book so I will try not to give too much away. Reading this book at first is like reading 2 stories. The stories are parallel and the author bounces back and forth from one tale to another from chapter to chapter. At first this might be a bit irritating because the stories seem to have no connection at all and just as you are getting into one you have to read the other. Obviously as the story progresses the 2 narratives finally converge in a moment the reader is left anticipating. The parallel is artistically created and the transition between them gets smoother as the story progresses.

One side follows the trail of a 15 year old boy Kafka; as he leaves home in an attempt to escape prophesy that looms over him. I found his character to be redolent of Holden Caulfield, from ‘Catcher in the Rye’. Like Holden he was well immersed in his thoughts, the psyche of an introspective and extremely intelligent 15 year old, preoccupied with music, literature, and of course sex. The author uses Kafka’s eyes and mind to paint a picture with words. The corresponding tale is centered on Nakata, an old man, long retired. A victim of some freak accident during his childhood, he has been left simple. Once a promising student from an affluent family he was left to spend the bulk of his life doing menial jobs in the countryside. Although the accident robbed him of intelligence and the ability to read and write, it endowed him with the aptitude to communicate with cats. Finding out what brings these 2 characters together is the basic lure of this novel.

I enjoyed pacing myself with this book, reading 2 chapters a night, although sometimes I felt like shooting through it. I like the writing style and the numerous cultural references. Haruki makes use of music in his novel to set a mood. There are references from Eric Clapton, Prince, and Led Zeppelin to Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. Haruki also leans on various literary and film classics, Western and Eastern, to give his story more fiber. I found these plugs to be extremely interesting and moreover educational. The pop culture references he used gave this book an exciting modern Japanese texture. I have not really read any new Japanese novels and the style was definitive. There were a couple of scenes in the book, particularly one with a character that looks like the guy on the Jonnie Walker whiskey bottle, where my imagination went into Japanimation. I usually visualize a story when I am reading it and this scene just took a Tarantinoesque spin in my mind. It was also probably the most gruesome and bloody scene in the book.

As you read ‘Kafka on the Shore’ the book seems to get more and more metaphorical. It starts off based in a world of extreme reality, some of the writing taking the form of military reports, and then flowing into a fantasy world where even as a reader you are left wondering, ‘what does this mean’? On a metaphoric level I would say this book is about fate and freewill, the classic oedipal twist. Can one escape their own fate or is it predetermined? You would have to make your own conclusion as to what point Haruki is hitting home. And although the story is interesting I do feel that it is lacking in some areas. Firstly, there are too many loose ends. I found the structure to be flaccid and not well rooted. There were plots that remained unexplained and irrelevant even by the end of the book. Maybe a second reading will shed light upon them. Secondly, I think the story really required an antagonist. As the reality slipped into fantasy I think the author did try to throw some ‘evil’ in there but it was too little too late for me. I like to have the feeling that there is something dark lurking around in the background, even if it is just your own subconscious.

All that being said, ‘Kafka on the Shore’ is still a worthy read and I am looking forward to reading more of Haruki Murakami’s books. His style is unique to me and I think he is a very talented story teller. He attempts to reach a place in my head that very few authors venture and I really enjoyed that.


treespotter said...

i just finished reading Sputnik Sweetheart, which i think is also very good, tho slightly different in style to Kafka on the Shore, but you would enjoy it. i'm also very impressed with the quality of translation, it's indeed impressive that the story lends itself so well even after a translation.

and on Kafka, a friend gave me a comic book, wood engraving style of Metamorphosis, you would love the damn thing. i'll try to scan and post it sometime soon.

Avi said...

I am surly going to read some more of his stuff, i heard KAFKA was far from the best. I would like to see that comic. I recently got volume 8 for the sandman series. it is the best so far, awesome art work and great stories.

Anonymous said...

'The Wind-up Bird Chronicle' is also pretty good. That and 'Kafka' are the only two Murakami books I've read. So far.