Kafka on the Shore
By Dennis Abrams
And so we begin.
Let me begin with a summary of what we’ve all (hopefully) read. Since the two plotlines are, at least for the moment, so divergent, I’ll start with Kafka’s story through Chapter 12, then Nakata’s:
Kafka: In “The Boy Named Crow,” which seems to work as a prologue, “Kafka” Tamura is getting ready to run away from home, and talks about his plans with his imaginary (or is he?) friend/companion Crow. Kafka’s got money stolen from his father, as well as his cell phone and hunting knife. Crow warns Kafka that there will be many trials along the way, and that to survive, he will have to be the toughest teenager ever.
While we don’t know yet why he’s planning to run away, Kafka has been preparing for this for years, cutting himself off from people at school and working out in a regular and methodical manner. Along with the money etc., Kafka takes with him a picture of his sister, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in many years – since his mother abandoned him, taking his sister with him. Kafka takes the bus to Takamatsu (thinking no one will think to look for him there.) and wakes up on his 15th birthday.
At a bus stop en route to Takamatsu, he meets Sakura, another in Murakami’s line of seemingly “knowing” young women. She says she’s on her way to visit relatives in Takamatsu; Kafka lies and says he’s doing the same. On the bus she mentions that she has a younger brother she hasn’t seen for awhile, and Kafka wonders if she is his sister.
When the bus arrives at Takamatsu, Sakura gives him her phone number and tells him to call her sometime. He goes to the Komura library (who’s going to look for him there?) where he meets the assistant Oshima, who tells him about that the library is a historical building (it sounds just like the kind I’d like to read in) and houses mostly Japanese poetry – haiku and tanka. (Oshima also seems interested in Kafka.) Kafka explores the library, settles in with a copy of Burton’s unexpurgated translation of The Arabian Nights, and takes the tour of the library, given by the head librarian Ms. Saeki. Kafka finds a discounted hotel room (courtesy of the YMCA) and wonders if his father has noticed he’s left.
Later, claiming to be a student doing research at the library, Kafka asks the girl at the hotel’s front desk if his discount could be extended – after calling the library to confirm he was actually there, his request is granted. (Although it seems that Oshima was inclined to ask him to stay with him as well.) Kafka and Oshima discuss the real Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” while he continued reading The Arabian Nights. He falls into a routine: breakfast, gym, library, noodles for dinner, back to the hotel.
But then something weird happens. In Chapter 9, Kafka wakes up in the middle of the night, on the ground at an unknown shrine outside of town – he has passed out, is filthy and covered with blood that’s not his own – and he doesn’t remember a thing (link to Nakata?) Crow tells him to calm down, Kafka calls Sakura, who, while annoyed at being woken up, agrees to meet him. He takes a cab to Sakura’s sister’s apartment, tells her that he is only 15 and a runaway. Sakura, a fellow runaway, agrees to let him spend the night.
Kafka admits to her that he has violent episodes in the past, but none involving the amount of blood in this one. We learned that his older sister was adopted – why then did Kafka’s mother leave with the adopted child and not her biological one? Although they started off sleeping separately (bed/sleeping bag), Sakura, despite having a boyfriend in Tokyo invited Kafka to share her bed. When he gets an erection, she strokes him off to climax. After she leaves to go to work, Kafka thoroughly cleans the apartment.
And then…there’s Nakata’s story:
His story begins with a procedural investigation by U.S. military intelligence with a rural countryside Japanese school teacher regarding an incident that occurred in November 1944. The teacher had taken a group of children to the hills outside of town to pick mushrooms (food was becoming scarce). While there, she (and some of the students) thoughts they saw a B-29 fly overhead, even though records show that there were no American planes in the area at that time. The teacher discovers the children in a strange clearing in the forest, all passed out on the ground and seeming as if they were in a trance.
Next is an interview with Dr. Nakazawa, the town doctor who went to help the teacher with the catatonic children. Although he originally thought they must have eaten poisoned mushrooms, but when he sees the strangeness of the clearing and the trance like state of the children, he knows something else is going on. The children regain consciousness with no memory of passing out. All except for Nakata who doesn’t wake up and is taken away for evaluation.
We next see Nakata as a grown up, looking for a lost cat named Goma. Since the incident, Nakata has no memory and cannot read, but strangely enough, can talk with cats. Because of this skill, he has been able to supplement the subsidy he receives from the government which considers him mentally deficient. Nakata talks to a nameless cat who he names Otsuka. Otsuka has not seen Goma, but is more interested in Nakata because he senses that he has lot half his spirit “Your problem is that your shadow is a bit – how should I put it? Faint. I thought this the first time I laid eyes on you, that the shadow you cast on the ground is only half as dark as that of ordinary people…What I think is this: You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow.” Nakata agrees to consider Otsuka’s suggestion that he go search for the other half of his shadow.
In a military interview with Dr. Shigneori Tsukayama, he disagrees that the incident with the children could be traced to poison gas of food poisoning, finally settling on mass-hypnosis of some sort, likening the incident to the idea of “spirit projection.”
Back in the “present,” Nakata talks to a particularly stupid cat that he names Kawamura, who seems to know where Goma is, but is unintelligible. A clever Siamese cat (is there any other kind) named Mimi helps Nakata out, serving as translator. It seems that Goma has been hanging around an empty lot, but was recently caught by a strange man who took him away. Mimi fears that the man (very tall, wearing a strange tall hat and long leather boots) might be some sort of pervert who tortures cats. The innocent Nakata is shocked to hear that such people exist: he goes to the lot and sits eating his usual lunch. When he’s done, he falls into a hibernating state, something he has been able to do since the incident.
And finally, there’s a letter – written in 1972 – from the rural school teacher to Dr. Tsukayama. In it, she admits that she’d lied to both Japanese and American officials about what had actually happened that day. It seems that at the time of the incident, her husband had been drafted and the night before the incident, the normally tight-laced teacher had an intense sex dream that left her in a highly euphoric state the next day. But while on the hill with her students, she discovers that, for mysterious reasons, her period had abruptly begun. She goes off into the woods with some towel to wipe away the blood and hides the towels, but Nakata finds them and returns to her. Angered and panicked and…she begins to beat him while the other students watch. But after they collapse and reawaken, they have no memory of the towels or the beating.
A few observations/favorite things:
It took until page 30 for the first reference to a woman’s ears…
I’m going to have to assume that there’s significance in Kafka’s reading choices: The Arabian Nights, In the Penal Colony…any guesses as to what it is?
Oshima’s story from Plato:
“In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female. In other words, each person was made out of the components of two people. Everyone was happy with this arrangement and never really gave it much thought. But then God took a knife and cut everybody in half, right down the middle. So after that the world was divided just into male and female, the upshot being that people spend their time running around trying to locate their missing other half.” And in the next chapter, Nakata’s, Otsuka tells him that he needs to look for his missing other half.
Kafka: Every woman, every younger woman, is a possible missing mother/sister. Again, the search for what’s missing.
Kafka on Kafka’s execution device in In the Penal Colony: “I think what Kafka does is give a purely mechanical explanation of that complex machine in the story, as sort of a substitute for explaining the situation is…What I mean is…What I mean is, that’s his own device for explaining the kinds of lives we lead. Not by talking about our situation, but by talking about the details of the machine.” But then…”What I really wanted to say didn’t get across. I wasn’t just giving some general theory of Kafka’s fiction, I was talking about something very real. Kafka’s complex, mysterious execution device wasn’t some metaphor or allegory, it’s here, all around me. But I didn’t think anybody would get that. Not Oshima. Not anybody.”
On old books: “When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages – a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers.”
Kafka’s narrative is 1st person. Nakata 3rd. Why?
From Jay Rubin:
“In an interview, Murakami voiced his great admiration for Franz Kafka, who is only one of many writers, musicians, and artists cited in the novel. Echoing remarks in Kafka on the Shore, Murakami’s interviewer mentions ‘In the Penal Colony,’ which accomplishes its eerie effect through a seemingly objective description of a grotesque apparatus used for executions. Murakami responds: ‘What Kafka gives us in his writing, I think, is the narrative of a nightmare. In the world in which he lived, real life and nightmare were, in a sense, closely bound together.’ Kafka conveys the true terror of a nightmare, he says, not by concentrating on the reactions of the protagonist but on the fine details of the nightmare itself. What Murakami says he most likes about Kafka is ‘his abnormal fixation on the details of the world of dream or imagination.’ This is a quality that Murakami perhaps shares with Kafka [MY NOTE: Perhaps?] suggests the interviewer. Indeed, the remark is reminiscent of Murakami’s own earlier quoted comment regarding Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that there is nothing he enjoys so much as the process of describing in ever finer precision the details of a thing that does not exist.
Young Kafka has a kind of alter ego, ‘the boy named Crow,’ (Karasu to yobareru shonen), who speaks to him at certain critical moments in the story, calling him ‘you.’ We learn at one point that ‘Kafka’ means ‘crow’ in Czech, and a crow motif derived from the letterhead of Franz Kafka’s father is used to decorate both the title page of Volume 1 and certain unnumbered sections where the ‘boy named Crow’ speaks to the protagonist. In fact, the novel opens with such a speech:
“‘So you’re all set for money, then?’ the boy named Crow asks in his characteristic sluggish voice. The kind of voice you have when you’ve just woken up and your mouth still feels heavy and dull. But he’s just pretending. He’s totally awake. As always.
I review the numbers in my head. ‘Close to 400,000 (yen) in cash, plus some money I can get from an ATM. I know it’s not a lot, but it should be enough. For the time being.
‘Not bad,’ the boy named Crow says, ‘For the time being.’
I give him another nod.
‘I’m guessing this isn’t Christmas money from Santa Claus.’
‘Yeah, you’re right,’ I reply.
Crow smirks and looks around. ‘I imagine you’ve started out by rifling drawers, am I right?’”
Kafka is preparing to leave home, and he has helped himself to some of his father’s money from a drawer in the study. He is another ‘Boku’ narrator, and he tells his story largely in the present tense, rather like the ‘Boku’ in the dreamier chapters of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. One wonder if Birnbaum’s device, which worked so well in the translation of that novel, was Murakami’s inspiration here…”
And of course, there’s the quote everybody knows and loves from Crow in the Prologue:
“Sometimes fate it like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine…
And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic I might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood, You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.
And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s about.”
Thoughts on this?
And questions? We know that somehow the stories of Kafka and Nakata are going to merge – but how? So far, the only connections I can see is that an appearance of a cat in both, and of course, periods of unconsciousness. And violence vs. pacifism.
Share with the group!
My next post: Tuesday, August 12 – Kafka on the Shore, Chapters 13-24. (And as an aside…what does everyone thing of the pace of reading – too fast? too slow?)