Kafka on the Shore
By Dennis Abrams
This is so good…
Let’s catch up with Kafka:
Kafka gets another late night visit from the spirit of the teenage Ms. Saeki and realizes in the morning that he is love with the spirit and that the spirit is in love with her long-dead lover. Kafka asks Oshima if he can find the music to “Kafka on the Shore” and wonders aloud if Ms Saeki is his mother. Later that day, Kafka brings her coffee, and she asks why he ran away from home. As they talk, she says that he reminds her of a boy she knew long ago. She also mentions, curiously enough, that she had written a book of interviews with people who had been struck by lightning. That night, Kafka remembers that when he was younger, his father had been struck by lightning on a golf course.
Kafka is visited again by the spirit, and that morning, Oshima is interviewed by the police. They know that Kafka came to the library, but Oshima covers for him, saying he hasn’t seen him in days. When Kafka brings Ms. Saeki her coffee that day, he asks her if she has any children – she doesn’t answer. That night, Kafka wonders if he is in love with the younger or the older Ms. Saeki.
Kafka calls Sakura to warn her that the police know he has called her in the past – that was how they traced him to the library – and to let her know that he is safe. He says that he is in a “surreal” situation. She invites him to come back to her place, but he tells her that he is in love with somebody else. Sakura tells him that if he ever needs to talk, he can call her. That night, Kafka thinks he is seeing the spirit come into his room again, but it is the real Ms. Saeki, sleepwalking. She strips and gets into bed with him, thinking he is her long-dead husband. They have sex, and she immediately leaves.
Ms. Saeki asks Kafka to tell her about his past, and he mentioned that he is from Tokyo and that his father has recently died. He suggests that she may have been his father’s lover at one time, but she rejects the idea. He asks her to go to bed with him, and she does not answer. After work, Oshima and Kafka go out for dinner – Oshima talks about his fantasy of fighting in the Spanish Civil War (!) and mentions that he has a regular boyfriend. Oshima says that love is always accompanied by sadness because our beloved – in the act of completing us – reminds us of what we have lost. That night, Ms. Saeki lets herself into Kafka’s room and looks at the painting. She offers to show him the beach that is shown in the painting. On the beach, Kafka embraces her, encouraged by Crow and maybe even the spirit of her dead lover. They return to the library and make love, and once again, Ms. Saeki leaves afterward.
Kafka sneaks out of the library to go workout at the gym, not knowing what to say to Ms. Saeki. After his workout – and resisting the temptation to immediately hop a bus out of the city – he returns to the library. Oshima talks to him about his search for freedom, questioning if anyone is ever truly free. When he brings Ms. Saeki her coffee, Kafka asks her about her past. She tells him there’s nothing he needs to know and wonders out loud how he has become so wise at so young an age. He tells her that he is taking back his life after the emotional abuse his father had put him through – that is why he took the name Kafka: it means “crow” in Czech, and crows are free and wild. He asks Saeki if she interviewed his father for her lightning book; she says she didn’t, but he doesn’t believe her. She confesses that she is confused by her life, and Kafka responds that she doesn’t have to be confused by him: he is her lover – past and present – and her son. That night they make love again, and for the first time, she stays.
And now to Nakata:
Hoshina and Nakata go toe Takamatsu Public Library (NOT the Komura) to try and find out what the entrance stone is – they spend the day there but no luck. That night, after Nakata goes to sleep, Hoshimo, who can’t fall asleep, goes to get a drink at a bar and on his way back, he runs into Colonel Sanders, who is working as a pimp and offers him a deal on a beautiful girl. Hoshino turns him down, but when Colonel Sanders sweetens the deal by offering to show him where the entrance stone is, Hoshino agrees.
Colonel Sanders takes Hoshino to a religious shrine to meet the prostitute. She’s gorgeous, and after they go to a hotel, she has sex with him for yours while, naturally, reciting Hegel. After they finally finish, Colonel Sanders offers to take him to the entrance stone. At first Hoshino is doubtful, thinking that the offer is too good to be true, but he goes along anyway.
The Colonel explains to Hoshino that his is a spirit – neither god nor Buddha – that chooses his earthly form as he goes along – hence, Colonel Sanders. He needs the help of a mortal with an assignment, and giving him the entrance stone is part of that assignment. They go to a vault at a religious shrine, and the Colonel tells Hoshino that this is where the stone is located. Hoshino is uncomfortable with the idea of robbing a shrine, but Colonel Sanders tells him that it is OK. The stone is very heavy and Hoshino needs a cab to get it back to the hotel, where he laves it on Nakata’s bed and finally falls asleep.
When Nakata wakes up and discovers the stone in his bed he spends a long time just looking at it, wondering what to do next. He talks to Hoshino about how sad he is, but feels that once he opens the entrance stone, something will change (although he can’t do anything until it’s thundering outside). Hoshino agrees to stay with him as long as it takes. Naturally a huge storm begins outside, the entrance stone becomes heavier, and Nakata realizes that flipping it over will open the entrance. Hoshino gathers up all his strength and flips the stone.
But with the storm over and the stone flipped, Hoshino is confused that nothing seems to have changed. Nakata goes to sleep. That night, Hoshino goes to a coffee shop where he meets the elderly owner, a classical music enthusiast, talks to him about Beethoven while he wonders why he’s so drawn to Nakata. The next day, while Nakata is still sleeping, Hoshino goes to a double feature of Truffaut films, thinks about his life and why he should be smarter than he is, and returns to the coffee shop to learn more about Beethoven and classical music.
When Hoshino returns to the hotel, Nakata is STILL asleep, but he gets a phone call from Colonel Sanders, who insists that Hoshino wake up the sleeping man and leave the hotel immediately and go to an apartment he has arranged for them. – police are making a sweep of the hotels of Takamatsu, looking for Nakata. Hoshino wakes Nakata and asks him why the police would be looking for him; Nakata tells him about killing Johnnie Walker. The two men check out quickly taking everything – including the entrance stone and go to their new digs – a stylish new apartment in a residential part of town. Once settled in, they talk about what happened in the hotel – Nakata is certain that the stone opened something somewhere, but isn’t sure what to do next. The two men walk to the beach and Hoshino promises Nakata that they will go to an aquarium after things blow over.
Some of my favorite things:
Oshima on Ms. Saeki’s song: “Symbolism and meaning are two separate things. I think she found the right words by bypassing procedures like meaning and logic. She captured words in a dream, like delicately catching hold of a butterfly’s wings as it flutters around. Artists are those who can evade the verbose.” “So you’re saying Miss Saeki maybe found those words in some other space – like in dreams?” “Most great poetry is like that. If the words can’t create a prophetic tunnel connecting them to the reader, then the whole thing no longer functions as a poem.”
The lack of a mother’s name in Kafka’s family register.
Miss Saeki: “As long as there’s such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.”
Miss Saeki on her book on lightning: “The book didn’t come to any conclusion, and nobody wants to read a book that doesn’t have one. For me, though, having no conclusion seemed perfectly fine.” A reference to Murakami’s own lack of endings, perhaps?
All of Chapters 26 and 28, Hoshino’s encounter with Colonel Sanders was pretty brilliant.
Oshima and Kafka’s talk about leaving one’s shell – symbolically or not.
Kafka’s phone call with Sakura: “I don’t know to put it exactly…This might sound strange, but you’re living in the real world, breathing real air, speaking real words. Talking with you makes me feel, for the time being, connected to reality. And that’s really important to me now.”
Sakura telling him that he feels like “a younger brother” to me.
“The axis of time. Somewhere I don’t know about, something weird is happening to time. Reality and dreams are all mixed up, like seawater and river water flowing together.”
I found it interesting that during the love making scenes with Kafka and Ms. Saeki, the voice switches from first to second person. Crow is narrating?
The line from Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, “Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.”
“It’s not the sample. We’re not talking about that sort of time here. I know you when you were fifteen. And I’m in love with you at that age. Very much in love. And through her, I’m in love with you. That young girl’s still inside you, asleep inside you. Once you go to sleep, though, she comes to life. I’ve seen it…I’m in love with you, and that’s what’s important.”
The two chords of the song, “I found those chords in an old room, very far away. The door to the room was open them.” The entrance stone?
Oshima’s line: “A hemophiliac of undetermined sex who’s hardly ever set foot outside Shikoku isn’t about to actually go off to fight in Spain, I would think.”
Haydn linking Kafka and Oshima to Hoshino.
Kafka metaphorically fighting in the Spanish Civil War, blowing up bridges.
“We’re all dreaming, aren’t we?” she says. All of us are dreaming. “Why did you have to die?” “I couldn’t help it,” you reply. Crow again?
The emptiness sad emptiness of Nakata – his awareness of it after killing Johnnie Walker.
Hoshino and Beethoven and Truffaut. Wonderful. And if you’d like to listen to the Archduke Trio (and you should), click here.
And who knew it had been turned into a play?
And to continue with Jay Rubin:
“Johnnie Walker has to be one of Murakami’s boldest challenges to the forces of high seriousness in the evaluation of literary art. Readers will face an equally bold challenge in later chapters with the sudden appearance of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders as a pimp with supernatural powers. This second strange creature, who appears only to the truck driver Hoshino, looks just like Colonel Sanders, with the white suit and glasses and string tie, but he explains his supernatural powers by pointing out that ‘I’m neither a [Shinto] god nor a Buddha nor a human being. I’m something else again – a concept.’ Murakami has latched on to these familiar – even beloved – symbols of worldwide corporate penetration and imbued them with unimaginable powers of evil, violence, and depravity. Johnnie Walker Black Label has long been a preferred gift in Japan from duty-free shops abroad, and because Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Japan all have slightly evil-looking plastic models of Colonel Sanders standing out front, the Colonel may be an even more familiar figure there than in his native country. The healthy-eating Murakami is probably conscious, too, that the Colonel’s fried chicken and other fast food, much of it exported to Japan, may be a significant contributor to American – and now Japanese – obesity. Japanese readers were shocked and confused by these enigmatic creations, said an interviewer, but Murakami draws some interesting parallels between them and his earlier writing:
‘The first character to come out of me like that was the Sheep Man in A Wild Sheep Chase. I was not planning to bring such a character onstage: he just popped out while I was writing. This was something from the world of darkness, a being that lives in the other world. Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders are the same kind of thing – ‘performers’ who appear from the darkness. There were a few who showed up in The Wind up Bird Chronicle, too: Boris the Manskinner, say, appears to be a realistic character, not something from the other world, but I think he’s probably the same kind of thing. Because he is there, the story is able to move off in a new direction.
While I’m writing, I’m not thinking: I don’t know if they are good or evil. I still don’t know whether the Sheep Man is good or evil, the same with Johnnie Walker. What he does is surely evil, but I don’t know how much of that is true. And Colonel Sanders? I have no idea what he’s all about. Both of them give a kick to the flow of the story, help it to move along. Rather than whether they themselves are good or evil, the really big question for me is, What kind of direction to they give the story as they help it to move along? It may be that, depending on how you look at them, Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker are the same thing appearing with different faces. This is a very real possibility. I don’t know, though…I think the story would not have proceeded so successfully had those two icons not been present. I think, too, though, that there are a lot of people out there who can’t accept such things.’
Murakami’s interviewer agrees that most of the numerous negative reviews of the book complain that these figures are undecipherable. We need not appeal to Murakami’s critics to fault his use of such devices, however: his own remarks all but confess that he makes them up to solve difficulties with the plot. If your story needs Character A and Character B to meet at some point but you have described them as strangers living in different cities, you can work out some mundane real-world developments that bring them together (work schedules, plane connections, a taxi with a flat tire), or you can have an exotic supernatural being appear in the dream of Character A telling him to dial the phone number of Character B as soon as he wakes up. All too often in this book, it seems as though Murakami has chosen the latter approach. When it becomes important for Colonel Sanders to contact Nakata, for example, he calls him on his friend Hoshino’s switched-off mobile phone, defying the laws of physics. (It is at this point that he calls himself a ‘concept.’)
[MY QUESTION: Does this matter?]
Kafka on the Shore uses such devices in ways that seem quite arbitrary, and its characters often move around more by rules of authorial convenience than by any consistent system of either fantasy or realism. Murakami appears to be making up the rules as he goes along, as if, say, in a vampire novel, we were suddenly to learn in the last chapter that vampires are vulnerable not only to garlic and the sign of the cross, but also to ketchup, which allows the hero to defeat the vampire villain by feeding him a hamburger. Anything goes. More disappointing, however, is the novel’s failure to answer the questions it raises at the end of the brilliant cat-killing scene in Chapter 16. What does it mean for a peaceful human being to kill another person, even if the killing is meant to stop the other person from killing? How do killing and war change people, make them no longer who they once were? Everything in the first 15 chapters of the book leads to that bout of horrific bloodletting, but nothing in the subsequent 33 chapters rises to that level of enquiry; and the meticulously composed chapters concerning the wartime events in Nakata’s childhood never figure in the narrative again.
Instead of changing into a virtually new human being (for which Murakami has given us plenty of precedents: take The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’s Creta Kano, for example), Nakata remains the same mentally weak old sweetheart. He does lose his ability to talk to cats, but now he acquires the ability to talk to rocks (which, thankfully, do not make audible replies), and suddenly, in Chapter 24, he can diagnose and cure back pain. He is possessed by an inexplicable desire to travel westward and cross a bridge, and he can summon such creatures as fish or leeches to rain down from the sky. He has certainly ‘changes,’ but only in diverse ways that make him bizarre without adding up to a critique of violence in society. Murakami, it seems failed to see what a profound document he had produced in the first 16 chapters of the book, and he lost the chance to make his novel a great comment on the human condition. Having emerged as the world’s foremost killer in the name of peace and justice, the United States – the primary source of Murakami’s literary vision – could have benefited from such a lesson most of all. Devoid of imagination, America’s leaders know only the ethic of kill or be killed in a black-and-white world of good and evil.
[MY NOTE: If, as I believe, Murakami’s a more akin to entering into a dream than any solid “reality,” is it fair to criticize him for not playing by the rules of reality? Or that a fictional character named Colonel Sanders isn’t totally realistic? And to continue, is criticizing Murakami for not writing the book Rubin wishes he had written a valid critique?]
Nakata’s need to travel westward propels him through the rest of the novel. He has no idea where he is going, but ‘something’ (never explained) draws him to Takamatsu, the exact same Shikoku city to which the young Kafka has fled, and his instincts bring him and his newly acquired travelling companion, the truck driver Hoshino, to the library where Kafka lives and works. [WARNING – From here through the next four paragraphs contain elements of the plot through the rest of the book.] Though he and Kafka are from the same Tokyo neighborhood, they have never met. When Nakata and Hoshino arrive at the library on 10 June, Kafka is off in the deep woods of Shikoku, preparing to tramp his way into the other world in the company of ghostly Second World War soldiers, so the anticipated encounter between Nakata and Kafka never happens.
At the library, Nakata feels the need to meet Kafka’s middle-aged lover, head of the library and writer of the hit song from 25 years earlier, ‘Kafka on the Shore,’ a dreamy ballad full of enigmatic poetic imagery that just happens to relate to Nakata’s raining fish and to the magical stone that marks his own entryway into the ‘other world.’ (The song also contained two unusual chords that contributed to its wide appeal.) They meet for the first and only time in their lives in the climatic Chapter 42, but Saeki declares that she has been waiting for him, and he apologizes for having taken so long to find her, as if he knew all along that she was his destination. She is a person trapped inside the memories of her past (she spends her time writing her voluminous memoirs with their Mont Blanc pen), while he is all but devoid of memory and lives only in the present.
‘I feel as though I’ve known you for ages,’ she says. ‘Weren’t you in that painting? A figure in the sea in the background?’ This was the picture of ‘Kafka on the Shore’ that featured the one true love of her youth. The two also share knowledge of the ‘entrance stone.’ This was merely an evocative phrase in her song, but it took on great reality for Nakata when his companion Hoshino, guided by Colonel Sanders, found the miraculous stone in the grounds of a Shinto shrine (probably the same shrine in which Kafka had awakened after his four-hour blackout). In a ritual Nakata performed during a dramatic storm, he had ‘opened’ the stone and, presumably, the entrance to the other world. He confesses to her that he killed a man in Tokyo. ‘I didn’t want to kill anybody, but Johnnie Walker was in charge and I took the place of a 15-year old boy who should’ve been there, and I murdered someone. Nakata had to do it.’
Saeki then wonders, ‘Did all that happen because I opened the entrance stone a long time ago?’ Nakata does not know the answer to her question, but he does know that ‘My role is to restore what’s here now to the way it should be.’ It was for this purpose, he says, that he ‘left Nakano, went across a big bridge and came to Shikoku.’
[END OF SPOILERS]
The level of contrivance here is mind-boggling, but Murakami seems comfortable with it:
‘In the context of the story as I conceive it, everything can occur quite naturally. Even something like this long-distance killing of the father is naturalistic realism in the world as I conceive it, so there is nothing at all strange about, say, Nakata’s doing the killing and the blood showing up on Kafka’s hands. I would be hard-pressed to explain why this is so, but it’s something that can happen as a matter of course.
A lot of readers, though, say they don’t get it. Why does Kafka have blood on his hands even though Nakata committed the murder? Because it can happen, that’s why. How can such a thing happen? Because a story can express things at a level that transcends explanation, things that cannot be explained in an ordinary context. Because a story expresses things in a way that is different from other kinds of expression.’
One’s reception of Kafka on the Shore, then, depends heavily on the degree of one’s willingness to ‘go with the flow’ of the story. To a reader less willing, Murakami seems to be relying far too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, and he too easily overlooks inconsistencies on the realistic plane. Take, for example, the amount of publicity concerning the murder of Kafka’s father. It is in all the newspapers and on TV, but for some reason none of Kafka’s Shikoku acquaintances know anything about it with the single exception of the young assistant librarian, Oshima. He has been closely following the reports, many of which mention the desire of the police to question the dead Koichi Tamura’s son, whose name certainly would have mentioned in the media, but still Oshima remarks that he does not know Kafka Tamura’s real name. The degree of Nakata’s memory is also inconsistent. After reading several times that his memory had been wiped out, we find him at points talking about ‘the occupation’ and ‘bombs,’ and he experiences at least one flashback that leads into a detailed narrative of his childhood. Nakata is stupid where the situation calls for him to be stupid, and he is almost eloquent when he needs to be more verbally eloquent.
This is not to say that Murakami completely ignores all matters of realism. The composition of the Allied occupation authorities’ documents on the ‘Rice Bowl Hill Incident’ is accomplished with meticulous attention to verisimilitude, and often the narrative will spell out the minutiae of ordinary life to give rational explanations for how or why characters do what they do – matters such as the Japanese equivalent of birth certificates (koseki) or the downloading of information from the Internet, or getting discounts at a hotel, or lining up room reservations at the YMCA, or the differences in traceability between prepaid and subscribed mobile phones, or weight training at the gym (Kafka works hard to toughen himself physically). We know a good deal more than we need to about Nakata’s finances and also about his bowel movements – sometimes to low comic effect.
For long stretches of the novel, then, Murakami seems to accept the conventions of realistic fiction, but this only makes his departures from the rules of consistency (or physics) all the more disconcerting. And for scenes involving out-and-out encounters with the supernatural, the amount of purple prose thrown at the reader exceeds even the loud music played during Sputnik Sweetheart’s close encounters with the other world. When Nakata invokes the magic powers of his ‘entrance stone’ to the other world, the thunder crashes and the wind blows with all the ferocity of a Bulwer-Lytton ‘dark and stormy night.’
Another feature of the book that has been remarked upon, both approvingly and disapprovingly, is the extremely large number of references to works of literature and music – large even for Murakami, and with a surprisingly high proportion of nods to high culture rather than jazz or pop music (although Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, the Beach Boys, Prince, and Cream are briefly mentioned.) In this, the character Oshima plays a major role. Having taken Kafka under his wing and arranged for him to live in the library, the 21-year-old Oshima never misses an opportunity to wax eloquent on any topic that arises between them, whether it be high culture or the meaning of life. He speaks profoundly on Franz Kafka and “In the Penal Colony” (actually young Kafka himself is the one who comes up with an incredibly sophisticated comment on that story); the Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume; the best colors for automobiles, the relationship of man and nature; Greek tragedy; Plato, issues of gender; sexuality; and love; Franz Schubert; the search for identity; T.S. Eliot; the art of sculpture; the subtleties of metaphor and symbolism; the psychology and ontology of ghosts; The Tale of Genji, it’s depiction of ‘living spirits’ and the question of whether deep resentment can leave the body and inflict injury on the object of hatred (which, we are invited to conclude, is probably how Kafka killed his father); the Edo-period fabulist Akinari Ueda (1734-1809); opera; the Spanish Civil War; Rousseau; Australian Aborigines; the nature of human freedom; Hansel and Gretel; and the guts as the original model for the interior human labyrinth. Some of these topics come in for repeated discussion by Oshima’s ever-open and active mouth. (Yeats, Mozart, novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Adolph Eichmann, and the Richard Burton translation of The Thousand and One Nights are commented upon elsewhere. Beethoven comes in for extended treatment, too, but that mainly happens in the Nakata narrative, as the truck driver Hoshino opens his soul to this elevating source of spiritual enrichment.)
Earlier, we noted Murakami’s tendency towards an indirect didacticism, but here the didactic element is anything but indirect. Asked if head consciously loaded this novel with so many references, Murakami answered:
‘Of course…Citation and erudition were extremely important for me in this novel. After all, the protagonist is a 15-year old boy, so it’s important for him to pass through a lot of different things. I myself crammed I knowledge from many areas as I grew up; the knowledge really comes pouring in at that time of life, like rain soaking into parched earth…If you do something like this in the story of a mature adult, it can come off as affectation, but for a young person it’s really important…Oshima imparts his erudition regarding Schubert’s piano sonata while he’s driving. Some people might think he’s just showing off his knowledge and be repelled by it, but he’s using this to convey something to the boy Kafka.’
Your thoughts? Are you able to “go with the flow” or do what Rubin sees as the book’s narrative flaws get in the way of your enjoyment? Share with the group!
My next post: Tuesday, August 26, the conclusion of Kafka on the Shore