Welcome back to the inertia book club, kicking off 2021 with a modern classic by Japanese star Haruki Murakami. He describes Kafka on the Shore as “a story of a lonely 15-year-old boy who wanders around in search of relief for his soul”. I first connected with Murakami’s earlier works, which often dealt with young men and their apathy towards a culture of shallow materialism that has infected all aspects of life around them. In contrast, with Kafka on the Shore Murakami masterfully weaves a tapestry of leitmotifs that touch on a spectrum of ideas, such as metaphysics, fate, music, and sexual desire. Much like the interwoven stories of the protagonist ~ Kafka ~ and old man Nakata, these concepts harmonise and draw from each other, encouraging you to make connections and squarely interact with the ideas in motion, rather than passively flying through the plot. Whilst rattling through this book is completely reasonable, and exactly what I did on my first pass, the beauty of this novel stems from moments of plot-empowered contemplation.
Kafka on the Shore follows two interwoven stories. That of fifteen-year-old protagonist Kafka Tamura and Nakata, an old man “who isn’t very bright”, but possesses a mysterious ability to converse with cats. Kafka embarks on a journey to break the bonds of a dark oedipal prophecy. Our young hero believes that within him lurks a violent omen, one that will overwhelm him if he cannot escape Tokyo. Alone apart from his alter-ego, the boy named Crow, Kafka journeys until fate brings him to the beautiful Komura library. There, he meets the mysterious Miss Saeki and the erudite Oshima. Kafka seems to find solace amongst the books and peaceful atmosphere, until a gruesome murder drags him back to reality, wanted by the police.
Meanwhile, Nakata investigates the disappearance of a young cat named Goma. After encountering the satanic top hat cat killer Johnny Walker, Nakata’s and Kafka’s pathways violently converge. The spiritual fallout of fates colliding results in encounters with an incorporeal Colonel Saunders and sojourns into a limbo-like otherworld.
The story is bursting with Murakami’s characteristic wackiness and absurdity, including the appearance of an incorporeal Colonel Saunders who plays the role of a spirit pimp. At times this absurdity coupled with a distinct lack of answers to key mysteries left me feeling frustrated, whilst I Am the Walrus by The Beatles echoed hauntingly around my head. However, for the most part it enticed me further and further down the rabbit hole, into the thick of the plot and characters. Enigmas mounted up, but these gaps allowed me to use my imagination in a meaningful way – to improvise my own ideas and answers.
Murakami utilizes gaps to cultivate spatial opportunities. Space, thought and their relationship is something I have considered before, but not particularly with novels. The importance of space and creativity is something you see beautifully exemplified in jazz improvisation. If you listen to a recording of the Al Foster band, at about 7:28 the piano fades, yielding to a superb bass solo. Within this space is where the imagination and creativity of the bassist flourishes. It’s intuitive, organic, and refreshing to experience. Likewise, as these musicians played in and out of their respective pockets, Kafka on the Shore provided pockets of narrative space for imagination, for me to think and come up with my own ideas; to reflect on the rich, sometimes disturbing, story. From the beauty of musical imperfection to hookers, Murakami provokes the reader to think about Hegel and the character of the human self, or perhaps most relevant of all: Kafka’s ultimately isolated struggle with his being. Who he is? What he will become?
At a basic level, it is enjoyable to refresh my imagination after diluting it with bullshit clips of drek from various media timelines. Fundamentally, at a more critical level, Murakami invited me to challenge what I read and what I thought. For example, throughout the entire book, it seems that fatalism prevails. Kafka cannot escape the dark prophecy that has besieged his soul “If only I could wipe out this me who’s here, right here and right now”. Indeed, like Kafka, the story apparently reminds us that we are mere products of nurture and nature, and the future cannot be changed any more than the past. However, by the end of the book, the prophecy has been dispelled, Kafka triumphs over fate. How did he manage this? I would argue that Kafka, through mindfulness of his past, augmented by the pain of what has and what could be, manifested forgiveness and empathy which ultimately overcame the violent void within him. Whilst the trauma instilled by past suffering will never leave him, the choices he makes in the present allow him to wield his fate and expand who he is. Perhaps fatalism does not steer me. Maybe I am the rudder, and fate is merely the wind behind my sail.
Whilst this particular train of thought was existentially interesting, it demonstrates the thought provoking nature of using your own independent thought to come up with answers. The utility of this in real life translates into a reinvigorated ability to challenge narratives and their themes. This has become ever more crucial for navigating the ever-growing culture of data-driven doublethink that we live in today.
“Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine … In dreams begin responsibilities”
Kafka on the Shore manages to combine an incredible mixture of elements together; spiritual hinterlands grounded in murky green reality, metaphysical themes of fatalism and freedom, physical suffering, and inner recovery. I could go on. Through excellent writing and grounded, likeable characters it avoids sounding patronizing or preachy. Finally, and most importantly of all, it rekindled and stoked my desire to read, to learn, and to think independently – surely the hallmarks of any great book.
Words by Tiarnan Cahill