Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kafka On the Shore

When you pick a book you look forward to a genre and get ready to read the story pertaining to that genre - thriller, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and so on. Pick up an Asimov and you know the story will pan across the galaxy. Pick up a John Grisham and you know the story, most probably, be about lawyers. Pick up a Murakami and you should expect a story that easily crosses between the real world and the metaphysical one.

Given that, Kafka On the Shore is probably Murakami's most extreme take on bridging that divide. The story deals with complex emotions as Oedipus Complex, labyrinths inside and outside oneself, androgynous characters, ghosts and being at two places at the same time. The story is also peppered with the usual Murakami foundation of music, sexuality and dark humor.

Kafka On the Shore deals with two parallel stories which are destined to cross paths. While at one end is the story of Kafka Tamura, a 15 year old boy who runs away from home to escape his father's prophecy; it is also the story of Satoru Nakata, a 50 year old who has lost all memory, is a bit slow-witted and who can talk to cats. As you read the story you realise that their lives are interlinked and they will cross paths at a later part in the novel. Across the story they come across various other people who add to their journey and keep you engrossed.

Kafka is a 15 year old boy who wants to become tough and has left his house to find his mother and sister. On the run he lands up a a library where he meets with Oshima, a 21 year old female who knows that she is a he, lives her life as a he and becomes Kafka's closest friend. Throughout the novel Oshima is always referred to as a he and infact you think otherwise till she herself explains her status to some arbid random visitors to the library. Oshima also lets Kafka stay in his jungle log cabin as a refuge. Kafka also meets with Miss Saeki who he thinks is his mother but who seems to visit him as a 15 year old girl/ghost in his room at night. And his runaway travels also bring him across Sakura, a young woman who he thinks might be his sister.

Nakata, on the other hand, is a 50 year old man who - after a childhood accident - lost his memory, his ability to read or write and a bit slow on the uptake. He gets a subsidy from the Governor and think that the governor controls everything. However, he can talk to cats and becomes a cat-finder on the side. One of his finding missions bring him across a person who kills cats to capture their souls. Nakata kills him in cold blood and then his life takes a different turn as he now realises that he has to close an entrance stone and he takes off on a mission. Nakata meets Hoshima, a truck driver who helps him in his mission.

But did Nakata kill Johny Walker (a take on the whiskey icon) or did he kill Kafka's father? Did Nakata kill him or did Kafka take over his body and make Nakata kill him? Is Kafka's landing up at the library where Miss Saeki works pre-determined or co-incidence? Is Miss Saeki really his mother? How are Nakata and Kafka connected and what has the entrance stone got to do with all this? Just some of the interesting questions that come up across the story.

Without revealing too much, Kafka On the Shore is also a story of metaphors as each flawed character represents some aspect of human nature. Kafka is the quintessential teenage boy who needs to discover himself and has too many angst and is struggling with questions. Oshima is the perfect voice of subconscious - non sexual, knowledgeable, with all the answers and some deep questions.Miss Saeki is the one lives in her memories and cannot live in the real world. Nakata is the perfect example of simplicity and focus - one who takes on a task and single mindedly pursues it to its closure. Hoshima is a story of coming-of-age, someone who has no cares in the world who comes in contact with Nakata and whose life changes for the better, who gets a purpose in life. Johny Walker and Colonel Sanders represent the temptations that come our way and what actions we do to overcome them or fall prey.

Murakami is not an easy read for everyone. I believe that there is a right time in your life when you will enjoy reading Murakami. If you start reading him too early you find his novels idiotic and without purpose and too esoteric. But if you read him at a proper time in your life, the novels get you thinking about yourself and your beliefs and flaws.They stay with you. If you've read a Murakami and found his novel too obtuse for your thinking, I suggest you give it a rest and pick them up after a few years again. I'm sure you'll discover something new.

Kafka On The Shore is best summed up by Murakami himself when he said - The secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write.

I rate it 4/5 at this time of my life. I'm sure I'll pick it up again in about 5 years.

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