Someone once told me books were like doors; you opened them and entered and all the old rules disappeared. In books anything could happen. And that just about sums up Haruki Murakami's (see my post on Norwegian Wood) latest novel. Kafka on the Shore is an improbable, multi-layered piece of writing that veers from reality to fantasy and back. On paper it shouldn't work, but off the page it does - in bucket loads. It follows the separate, but converging, journies of a fifteen year old Japanese high school student who runs away from home, and an ageing, illiterate man, Nakata, whose main talent is to be able to talk to cats. Don't be put off if it sounds line Alice in Wonderland; this novel will shake your brain up, and it won't quite settle down in the same form as it was before you read it.
The details of the plot are completely believable. Almost as throwaway sub-plots Murakami introduces Schubert's Piano Sonatas, Beethoven's Archduke Trio, Truffaut's films, contemporary pop lyrics, and more. Some credit for the seamless readability of this complex, but compelling, book must go to the masterly translation by Philip Gabriel.
But what sets Kafka on the Shore above recent great novels such as Ian McCewan's Saturday is the dark dimension. Contemporary life is there in exquisite detail, but so is a horrifying blackness towards which the two principal characters are remorselessly drawn. Takata merges as a kind of shaman, with combined with his illiteracy and innocence positions him as a Parsifal like holy innocent. In fact the parallels with Wagner, and the Ring cycle in particular, run deep in the shared themes of mythical and contemporary taboos, patricide and incest.
I read a lot of great books, but very few leave a really lasting impression. Kafka on the Shore makes it into the life changing category for me, and it is up there with books like Catcher in the Rye, Death in Venice, and The Magus (yes, I have a taste in rites of passage literature).
This work is a staggering achievement which works sublimely well on a number of levels. It is more than a novel, it is a step in a journey of exploration and understanding (a kind of overgrown path) that Murakami has been following since his first novel Hear the Wind Sing was published in 1979. Read it.
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