Genre: Exemplar Contemporary Japanese Fiction
Author: Haruki Murakami (2005)
review in one breath
Just in case you are not amongst the cutting-edge literati, I'm here to tell you that Japanese author Haruki Murakami has trumped the (U.S.) 'National Bestseller' list with two novels which are WELL worth your consideration as fans of Japanese Supernaturalism, hints of traditional folk lore, and downright strange goings-on. If you're looking for a good summer read, this is definitely one to put on your list.
I confess I don't do many reviews of straight-up literary works, but after reading Murakami's Kafka on the Shore I have no doubt I will be doing you a service to bring this to your attention.
The name 'Haruki Murakami' is already well-known amongst those who read the latest, greatest best-sellers. I admit I am not one of those, but the fact that "he is on course to becoming the most widely read Japanese writer outside Japan, past or present" (according to the The New York Times), made me very curious to say the least. And as suggested, Murakami's Kafka on the Shore is an exceptional book well worth reading.
Why, you may ask, does it appear here amongst SaruDama's predominantly genre-skewed reviews? The answer is simply that this "national bestselling" novel incorporates (explicitly and subtly) core elements which wholly resonate with fans of j-horror. Is this a j-horror novel? The anwser is "No". But it IS a narrative involving traditional Shinto superstitions, weird manifestations of the supernatural, and the overall suggestion that mundane existence is the mere pittance of an overall supernatural (or "metaphysical") structure. It is a complex page turner which will have you wondering what strange phenomena the next page will deliver.
I think it is safe to say that Kafka on the Shore will not be adapted to film any time soon. (But who knows??) It is too complex, too robust and too involved. But the special effects for such a film would undoubtedly be interesting. Fish and leeches raining from the sky, weird unexplained events occurring in a remote forest, ancient Shinto gateways leading to hidden realms transfixed somewhere between the worlds of the living and the dead, ghostly seductive apparitions haunting libraries during the Witching Hour, and massive supernatural flutes fueled by the souls of dead cats. That would definitely be a film I would stand in line to see!
All in all this becomes a rather creepy tale. Not in a spook-filled way but through its deliberate and consistent reference to the supernatural or metaphysical layers making up human existence. There is much talk of dreams, fate, karma, Nothingness, and the essence of meaningful Life. There's also a lot of sex, randiness and sexual experimentation which always makes for a good read.
The book actually tells two seemingly unrelated tales which gradually converge in increasingly strange and baffling ways. The two main characters of these two tales are "Kafka" Tamura, a 15 year-old boy who has run away from a relationally distant father, and Nakata, an elderly simpleton whose strange childhood experience has left him mentally disabled but (very) unusually gifted in other ways.
The odd-numbered of the 49 chapters follow the young Kafka as he plans and executes his running away and embarks on a rather event-filled adventure of self-discovery. Abandoned by his Mother at an early age, he has lived alone with an overbearing Father who seems to vent his frustration and rejection out on Kafka. With explicit reference to the Greek myth of Oedipus, Kafka's own adolescent fate draws him deeply into dream-like bouts of violence, deep self-contemplation, and first experiences of love and sex. This novel is definitely about him and his effort to survive despite the lousy hand he seems to have been dealt by the forces that be, but it is immediately evident that his story, his life's meaning is incomplete and will never be fully realized without the encounter of divergent yet specific souls he somehow haphazardly runs into.
The even-numbered chapters follow Nakata, now well into his sixties, whose otherwise early childhood was irrevocably altered following a bizarre and still unexplained episode during a class outing to gather mushrooms in the forest. The strange incident, which even military intelligence was forced to look into, lefts him devoid of any prior memories and skills. The once bright, quiet student woke from a weeks-long coma unable to read, unable to learn, unable to even recognize his parents. For the decades since he has lived his life in the most simplest of ways, surviving on a disability pension he receives from the government and spending his free time locating local families' lost cats, a skill he has become somewhat famous for. Nakata, it seems, can actually converse with cats.
And this brings us to the metaphysical/supernatural core of the tale. Cats, like certain other animals (foxes, raccoons, etc) are attributed supernatural qualities in Shinto folklore and mythology and are often recognized as living creatures whose souls stand with one foot in the normal physical world and the other in a supernatural realm. Nakata's ability to speak with cats has far less to do with anything akin to Dr. DooLittle than it does with the fact that Nakata's own consciousness somehow overlaps with the supernatural. The childhood event which left him witless also somehow left him gifted as a subtle diviner of things unseen. This becomes increasingly evident as Nakata innocently follows his simple path from one bizarre situation to the next, leading him down a path he knows he must follow but to what end he has no idea.
This extremely "otherworldly" nature of Kafka on the Shore is precisely where its fascination lies. As Nakata and Kafka's independent paths slowly converge, very heavy philosophical and existential implications begin to arise. But these are drawn and pursued in a wholly Japanese and Shinto fashion, which results in the story becoming all the more esoteric and mind-bending for Western readers. (Though I'm sure this bent plenty of Japanese minds as well.)
This is indeed a very cool book and I recommend you check it out. You won't be disappointed. Its a relatively hefty read at about 470 pages in 10-point font, but you'll likely get hooked after the first chapter or so. Kafka on the Shore is actually Murakami's second best-seller in the USA. His prior one is entitled The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which I've heard is just as trippy. (I hope to post a review of that soon.) His latest novel is entitled After Dark which I am currently reading and will update you on once I've finished it.
If you enjoy books and are looking for something *completely* out of the ordinary, and especially if you are looking for entertaining forays into a Japan-centric perspective of the world (and the world beyond), its a very safe bet to check this out.