Category Archives: Kafka on the Shore

Posts and discussion about Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

“If you remember me, I don’t care if everyone else forgets.”

Kafka on the Shore
By Dennis Abrams

art kafka on the shore 4

I so love this book. And after this reading, even more so.


Kafka, asleep in bed gets a call from Oshima who tells him to get dressed and packed and ready to go. He drives Kafka to the cabin in Kochi, telling him that the police are searching the city every since word broke of Nakata’s confession to the stabbing – police suspect that Kafka may have hired him to commit the crime. AS they drive, Oshima asks Kafka to stop seeing Ms. Saeki, at least for the time being, fearing that her deluded sense that Kafka is the reincarnation of her husband is dangerous.

When they arrive at the cabin, Oshima lays down for a nap while Kafka puts away the groceries and reads for awhile. When Oshima wakes up, he once again warns Kafka about the dangers of wandering too far into the woods – it seems that during the War, a regiment of soldiers trained in these woods, and two disappeared, never to be found.

But despite Oshima’s warning, Kafka wanders into the forest, carrying survival supplies and going deeper into the woods than ever before. That night, he dreams about raping Sakura despite her pleas not to, telling him that although it is a dream, she is his sister. He orgasms and wakes up.

Kafka once again goes into the woods, forging a trail with an axe, all the while arguing with Crow. He has been fighting against his father’s curse all his life, culminating in the previous night’s metaphysical rape of his “sister” Sakura. Believing the war within him is destroying him, he throws away his survival supplies (except his father’s hunting knife) and goes farther into the forest. He is, in effect, committing suicide.

Wandering through the woods, Kafka feels so connected to the rhythms of nature that he is not afraid of being lost, but still feels despair that his mother hated him so much that she abandoned him and confusion about his feelings for Ms. Saeki. Indeed, he seems to doubt the possibility of actually feeling love for anyone. And then…the two Japanese Imperial soldiers who disappeared in the woods during the War approach him, telling him that they have been waiting for him for a long time, and inviting him to come with them through the “entrance.” He agrees to do so.

But as the soldiers lead Kafka through an increasingly treacherous woods, he tires and is starting to fall behind when they reach a ridge overlooking what looks like a deserted village. They descend, and take him to a hut that in the inside looks like Oshima’s cabin. There, he is told to adjust to his surroundings (much as Oshima told him to do) and is left alone. He turns on the TV and watches part of The Sound of Music before falling asleep. When he wakes up, the spirit of the teenage Ms. Saeki is cooking him dinner. They sit and talk; she tells him she has no name and will appear whenever he needs to see her. Kafka tells her that he feels he has come to this place to see her and one other person.

And then…we see The Boy Named Crow, who comes upon Johnnie Walker in the woods??? He shows Crow the flutes made from cat’s souls, and complains that since dying he’s been stuck in limbo and is struggling to find a way out. Walker invites Crow to try and kill him; Crow leaps on him, gashing his skin and cutting out his eyes and tongue, but Johnnie just laughs. (What was that all about???)
Kafka wakes up in the lonely village, wanting to read a book, but there are none there. The spirit of the young Ms. Saeki returns to sit with him, telling him that she feels completely one with him. She also says that this village, a place where time is meaningless, is also a place where memory ceases to exist, along with hunger. (Not unlike the End of the World?) After the 15 year old spirit disappears, the real Ms. Saeki enters the hut. Kafka prepares her tea and they talk her about their relationship. Ms. Saeki explains to him how much she lost trying to ‘freeze time’ when she feared she would lose her husband, and begs him to return to the real world immediately, telling him to take the picture of the boy on the beach and to always remember her. Kafka forgives her for leaving him as a child. The two soldiers lead Kafka out of the village, warning him, a la Lot’s wife (or Orpheus?) not to look back. He does once, at the top of the ridge, and comes close to not leaving. Finally, though, he makes his way back to Oshima’s cabin.
(My take on this extraordinary section? The village is the place that each of the book’s main characters – Nakata, Ms. Saeki, the evil spirit – has been trying to reach – a place free from time and desire – limbo.

And this it seems is what Kafka has desired as well. He has experienced pain and love and hope and loss almost comparable to Ms. Saeki’s, and now he is the place where she has actually lived since she was twenty. And the two Imperial soldiers? They serve the role of Chiron on the River Styx, leading Kafka from one life to the next. And they also serve another role as well – as an image of two men who have avoided a life of pain and torment while giving up a life of happiness as well.)

Oshima’s brother Sada comes to the cabin to retrieve Kafka. As they drive back to Takamatsu, Sada says that the cabin is the one thing that unites him and Oshima. After discussing surfing, Kafka tells Sada that he went into the woods – Sada asks if he met the soldiers, although neither one will acknowledge what the soldiers told them. At the library, Oshima tells Kafka that Ms. Saeki has died, and gives him the picture of the boy on the beach along with a copy of “Kafka on the Shore.” Kafka says that it’s time to return to Tokyo to finish school and to talk to the police, Later, he might come back to work with Oshima at the library.

At the bus station, Kafka calls Sakura to tell her he is leaving Takamatsu. She tells him that she had dreamed of him a couple of nights earlier, but it was not the same rape dream he had – she dreamed that she was protecting him. On the bus back to Tokyo, Crow tells Kafka that he did well on his journey, but Kafka is worried that he learned nothing about himself. Crow tells him to sleep and when he wakes, he will be in a whole new life.

And…Nakata’s story:

Hoshino rents a car that won’t stand out and brings it back to the apartment. There, Nakata talks to him about the stone, which he says is telling him that someplace nearby has what they need. The next day, the pair begin driving around Takamatsu, looking for the mysterious location, but after a full day of looking, Nakata doesn’t find it, and the normally patient Hoshino is getting pissed. The same thing happens the next day, but on their way home, they got lost in the neighborhood surrounding their apartment and come across the Komura Library, which Nakata is sure is his destination. But since it’s Monday the library is closed and the play to return the next day.
The intrepid duo return to the library where they are greeted by Oshima. Hoshino reads a book about Beethoven and at lunch, he talks with Oshima. In the afternoon, Nakata and Hoshino take Ms. Saeki’s tour of the library; Nakata mentions that he is from the area where Kafka’s father was murdered, which makes Hoshino nervous, but Ms. Saeki continues with the tour. Afterward, the pair go back to the reading room, but suddenly, Nakata runs out and into Ms. Saeki’s study, where he tells her he wants to talk to her about the entrance stone. She agrees and closes the door so that they can speak in private.

And here’s where it gets interesting: they realize they are companions with incomplete shadows: he can’t live anywhere except in the present; and she can’t live anywhere except in the past. We learn that she opened the entrance stone when she was twenty to try to save her husband but was punished for doing so: first with his death, and then with her inability to forget their love. Now, she understands why Nakata is doing the same. She points out to him that HE Is the boy looking out at the water in the painting, and when they touch hands his mind suddenly floods with memories. Ms. Saeki gives Nakata a pile of papers that she says tells the story of her life and asks him to burn them. (She restores his memories, he destroys hers.) Nakata and Hoshino leave to find a place to burn them; Oshima is so busy manning the front desk that is not until late afternoon that he realizes that Ms. Saeki has died. While he waits for the ambulance, Oshima makes note of the time to tell Kafka.

After Nakata and Hoshino burn Ms. Saeki’s memoir, Nakata once again is very tired, so Hoshino calls a cab to take them home. In the cab, he tells Nakata how much the ten days he has spent with him have meant, and how Nakata has made him a better person. Nakata falls asleep in the cab, Hoshino carries him to bed, where Nakata dies peacefully in his sleep. Hoshino, afraid of complicity in the Tokyo murder, thinks about calling the examiner and leaving, but stops short, when he realizes that the entrance stone has not been closed. He wants to do that for Nakata but doesn’t know how, so he waits for word from Colonel Sanders.

While waiting to figure out what to do with the stone, he turns the AC up to keep Nakata from smelling. The weather slowly gets better; the opposite of the storm when Hoshino flipped the stone for the first time. He can’t sleep, and the next morning he sits with the stone (a la Nakata) and tells it his failings, feeling that his life has largely been a waste. A cat goes by the window and tells him “hello.”
Hoshino is now able to speak with cats, and the cat warns him that a being of pure evil will try to sleep through the entrance before it closes – this is the time when Hoshino must flip the stone and kill the being once and for all. Hoshino is worried, though, that he doesn’t know what this being even looks like: the cats gives him the clue that it only moves by night. So, that night, Hoshino waits by the stone with an arsenal of kitchen knives and mallets. At midnight, he sees a creature that looks like a slimy white salamander crawl out of Nakata’s mouth and head straight for the stone. His knives and mallets have no effect on it, so Hoshino concentrates all his energy on flipping the stone: after he does so, he easily kills the creature with a knife. The next morning, Hoshino says farewell to Nakata and takes the creature’s body away to be burned.

And Kafka has learned the lesson that he ran away from home to discover. Ms. Saeki, who squandered her life after twenty, had begged him that he had to accept the pain of his own early live and keep on living. Oshima seconded that in Chapter 49, telling Kafka that we store memories inside of us like books in a library, and only every now and they do we need to dust them off.

The novel, then, ends like it began, with Kafka and Crow talking. At the beginning, Crow had cautioned Kafka that the only way he could survive was by becoming the toughest fifteen-year old in the world. And as the story ends on the bus back to Tokyo, Crow assures Kafka that he is a survivor.

From Matthew Carl Strecher’s extraordinary new book, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami:

“…Saeki and Nakata actually share the same crippling debilitation: like the protagonist who is trapped in ‘the Town’ in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, both have lost their shadows and must now live in the conscious world – on this side – while their other halves go on existing ‘over there.’ Nakata’s story begins in the closing days of World II. For reasons that are never made clear – perhaps it was to escape the rampant violence that surrounded him in his own world – Nakata entered the ‘other world’ as a child, emerging some weeks later without his ‘shadow.’ Along with his shadow, he has lost the ability to remember anything from his past or to form new memories. Put in a slightly different way, he is no longer a being in ‘time,’ divided into past, present, and future, but of Time, that unified eternity in which past and future are bound up in an endless present. Saeki, on the other hand, having once entered the ‘other world’ as a teenager in the mid-1960s, appears to have returned without her complete physical self. Today she has the appearance of a woman in her midforties, but she is, almost literally, a mere shadow of herself with nothing but memories to sustain her. Much like Cinnamon, she spends her time writing memories in a notebook.

Owing in part to his liberation from the snares of the human construct of time, like Yuki in Dance Dance Dance, Nakata is able to sense when certain things are going to happen. And yet, again like Yuki, he cannot be certain whether he is merely seeing what will happen or is actually making it happen. Following his murder of the spirit known as ‘Johnny Walker,’ Nakata visits the nearest police box and confesses what he has done, but he is taken for a senile old man and told to go home. As he prepares to leave, Nakata helpfully suggests to the officer that he bring along an umbrella should he be on duty the next evening, even if the sky is clear, because ‘fish will fall from the sky like rain. A lot of fish. Probably sardines, though there may be a few mackerel mixed in among them.’ The following day, as he predicted, a great plague of fish rains down upon that section of Tokyo. Somewhat later, at a rest area on the way to Shikoku, Nakata observes a man being beaten to death by a biker gang in a parking lot. As when he witnessed Johnny Walker’s cruelty toward the neighborhood cats, Nakata’s inner self reacts to this brazen violence and rises to the surface of his consciousness, incensed:

‘Nakata closed his eyes. Something in his body was quietly boiling over, and he was powerless to hold it back. He felt faintly nauseated…Nakata looked up at the sky, then slowly opened his umbrella above his head. Then, carefully, he took several steps backward…At first it was just a few spatters, but soon the numbers swelled and it became a downpour. They were pitch-black and about an inch long. Beneath the lights of the parking lot it looked fascinating, like black snow. This unlucky snow struck where it landed on the men’s shoulders, arms, and necks. They tried to pull them off, but this was not easily done.’
“Leeches,’ someone said.’

Does Nakata open his umbrella because it is about to rain leeches, or does it rain leeches because Nakata opens his umbrella? Even Nakata appears uncertain. Later in the novel he confides to Hoshino that he is afraid of being used for some terrible evil. ‘Suppose, for instance, that what falls from the sky next time is ten thousand knives, or a huge bomb, or poison gas/ What would Nakata do then?’ The truth is that Nakata, by his own admission, is an ‘empty shell’; we might say he is a mere vessel through which ideas – words – pass at the whim of others, and it is this, rather than any willpower of his own, that brings these new realities into being. He has never truly been in control of his life or of the things that happen in this world through him.

It is, instead, Saeki who represents the more active aspect of the two characters, for in contrast to Nakata’s ‘pure flesh’ existence, Saeki is something closer to ‘pure thought,’ or ‘pure spirit.’ Like all Murakami’s characters – like the ‘poor aunt’ – she has a corporeal form but one that can change; her true existence is bound up in the pages of manuscript paper on which she scribbles, virtually non-stop, with her fountain pen. In response to Nakata’s admission, late in the book, that he understands nothing but the present, Saeki declares to him that she is the opposite, that ‘I haven’t had anyone I could call a friend for a long time…except for my memories.’

But what exactly has Saeki been writing on her manuscript paper, so much that it fills many large file folders? ‘Since returning to live in this town, I have been sitting at this desk, writing this manuscript,’ she explains to Nakata. ‘It is a record of the life I have followed.’ Her final request to Nakata, before he touches her hand and sends her ‘over there’ for good, is that he burn the entire manuscript, so that not a single fragment remains. This collection of manuscript pages thus stands in for the physical remains of Saeki; its burning will be her cremation.

Though he is unable to read or write himself, Nakata intuitively grasps the importance of both, for as Saeki tries to explain to him, the process of writing is synonymous with the act of living, of existing meaningfully, something about which Nakata has no firsthand knowledge since his childhood:

‘It’s a very important thing, the act of writing, isn’t it’? Nakata asked her.
‘Yes. That’s right. It is the act of writing that is so very important. There is nothing meaningful in what has been written, in the result itself.’
‘Nakata cannot read or write, so I cannot leave any records behind,’ said Mr. Nakata. ‘Nakata is just like a cat.’

Stated another way, words – spoken or written – create a new reality for themselves. The act of writing, rather than what is written, is important because through this means we create a new, often tangible, reality. And Saeki is correct is stating that what is written is meaningless, but fails to add, ‘until it is read by another.’ It is the acknowledgment of another that brings the reality of all words to fruition. For Saeki, however, the only person she might wish to read her words is long gone from this world, so she directs Nakata to destroy them.

The most important reality generated through words in this novel, of course, occurs for the title character, Tamura Kafka himself, whose solution to the Oedipal prophecy/curse that governs his life is to create the reality he desire by fulfilling every last detail of that prophecy as it was spoken by his father. In so doing, as we will see [below], Kafka uses his oracle to construct a world in which he regains not only his mother and sister but a renewed (and for him, more acceptable) sense of identity.”
“In Kafka on the Shore, the forest plays an even more central role as a narrative setting, not only in terms of the detailed description it receives but also for its function as a repository of the collective memories of humanity and a meeting place for those memories. In its role as the ‘other world,’ reprising the metaphysical hotel in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the forest also serves as a conduit between worlds and as a sort of ‘changing room’ wherein the inner self may leap from one physical vessel to another Access to this forest, as always, requires a journey, yet the ‘other world’ of the forest also seems to lurk always just beside us, waiting for us to take that one step farther across the boundary into oblivion.

This journey, in the case of Kafka on the Shore, is made by the title character, Kafka himself. As will be recalled…Kafka having fled from his father’s prophecy to Takamatsu City in Shikoku, Kafka lays low at the Komori Memorial Library, where the cross-dressing Oshima provides him company, counsel, and, when necessary, an escape route. As detectives hunt for Kafka as a ‘person of interest’ following the murder of his father, however, they track him to Takamatsu, eventually coming across the library, and Oshima, fearing that Kafka may be implicated, takes him deep into the forested mountains of Shikoku outside of Takamatsu City. There, at a tiny, secluded cabin owned by Oshima’s easygoing surfer brother, Kafka spends a few days in seclusion, warned by Oshima not to wander too far into the forest, as he might never find his way back. As a cautionary tale, Oshima tells him about two deserters from the Imperial Army during World War II who escaped into the forest, never to be seen again.

In time, of course, Kafka does enter the forest, marking trees with spray paint as he goes, like Hansel and Gretel dropping bits of bread. During his initial stay at the cabin he explores slowly and methodically, venturing slightly farther each day into its murky depths. Even here, at the edge of the metaphysical world, he senses something powerful and mysterious. The description is remarkably like that of the protagonist in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World:

‘Like yesterday, the forest is dark and deep. The towering trees surround me like a wall. In the gloomy hues, something hidden among the trees, like in an optical illusion picture, is observing my movements.’

Not until the end of the novel, however, does Kafka finally penetrate deeply enough to discover those who actually reside in the metaphysical realm of the forest. Initially, he meets up with two soldiers – the same two who disappeared during World War II, and although the war has been over for decades, both appear exactly as they were the day they deserted from the Imperial Army. They lead Kafka into a dense part of the forest, eventually coming upon a small cluster of cabins deep in the woods. One clever narratological detail worth noting here is that although the soldiers speak to Kafka and he asks them questions, Kafka’s utterances are not set off by quotation marks; we may conclude from this that Kafka’s utterances are really thoughts, for his mind is directly hardwired into the collective unconscious represented by this forest. Much as we see in the latter pages of Hear the Wind Sing, as Kafka converses with others, he is also conversing always with himself.

When Kafka finally does reach the village, he is mildly surprised to find that it has electricity supplied by wind power, and even electrical appliances, though they are uniformly fifteen to twenty years out of date and look as though they have been taken out of trash dumps. This suggests that the metaphysical world – or at least this little part of it – has been closed off since the 1960s, presumably when Saeki and her boyfriend opened and closed the ‘Gateway Stone.’ Since that time, the village has remained isolated, blocked from receiving fresh input (The repetitive showing of The Sound of Music on the television Kafka discovers would seem to suggest the year 1965.) That fresh, current input (memories) from the physical world is supplied by Kafka himself, and thus the ‘Saeki’ whom Kafka meets there is, simultaneously, the middle-aged woman he fantasizes to be his mother (and with whom he has by now had sexual intercourse) and also the fifteen-year-old girl who first entered that world more than twenty years earlier. The forest will preserve both versions of Saeki forever.


In addition to its function as a repository for memory, the ‘other world’ in Kafka on the Shore serves as a conduit by which characters may cross vast distances in this world without ever leaving. This is accomplished through the mind-body separation we have already seen in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. In this later work, however, the phenomenon is used to open up the narrative structure to virtually endless possibilities as each character’s true identity grows less and less clear. This is, on the one hand, liberating, as our potential readings of the text increase exponentially depending on how we choose to confront each character; at the same time, much of the complexity – and confusion – in this novel arises from its use of a kind of latticed structure, in which characters with intact inner selves are juxtaposed with those who have no inner self, as well as some who appear to have multiple inner selves. When this inherent confusion of character identity is combined with the overlay – like transparency films placed atop one another – of multiple historical eras in physical time, the tangle grows even worse.

Among the trickier characters in this text is Tamura Kafka’s father, Tamura Koji, a sculptor who is, for at least part of the narrative, possessed by the spirit taking the form of ‘Johnny Walker.’ But is Johnny Walker actually Kafka’s father, or has he joined the party, so to speak, at some later point? Kafka’s loathing of his father brings this dilemma into sharper relief; is the man Kafka detests Tamura Koji himself, or is the spirit we know as Johnny Walker? Kawai Hayao is also drawn into this slippage between identities within these father figures:

‘Kafka’s real father, Johnny Walker, Colonel Sanders, Hakata – they are all father figures. This novel is full of fathers. So it is not so simple as just killing the father and having done with it; no matter how many times the father is killed, he just keeps reemerging in different guises.’

Further, Kafka’s father is not the only tricky issue in this story. Whether Kawai means to argue for shirting core identities, this is precisely what leaves us in so much doubt about who is really who.

One approach to this dilemma is to explore the historical layering of the novel. Each of the three principled characters we meet – Nakata, Saeki, and Tamura Kafka – represents a distinct generation, a discreet historical era, and each at some point in his or her youth, for various reasons, enters the metaphysical world. Beginning chronologically, Nakata first enters this world as a child in 1944, the closing days of World War II, whereupon he loses his ‘shadow,’ in effect, his mind. Saeki, a musician who shared a relationship with a young man…entered the ‘other world’ during the turbulent 1960s, seeking a place where the chaos of the outer, physical world could not threaten the perfect enclosure in which she and her boyfriend lived; she, too, emerged from this world without her other half – her boyfriend. Kafka, finally, goes ‘over there’ near the end of the novel’s present (concurrent with the novel’s writing), but, unlike the others, escapes with more than he possessed when he entered. The one thing each character’s foray into the ‘other world’ has in common with the others is that it occurs at a moment of chaos and fear: Nakata’s during the conclusion of a disastrous war, Saeki’s during the rising tide of violence attending the antigovernment student movements in the 1960s, and Kafka’s in the face of a more personal crisis, namely, his association by blood with a man he considers to be evil.

Despite their distinct historical epochs, however, these three cases are also linked obliquely by a voice in Kafka’s head, whom he knows as ‘the Boy Called Crow’ (karasu to yohareru shonen) who guides Kafka in nearly all of his movements away from his father and the prophecy he has received from him. For purposes of this discussion, it is useful to state at the outset that this ‘voice’ very likely represents the shadow lost by Nakata as a child. [MY NOTE: Really? Interesting…] As such, we will focus our attention chiefly on what actually happened to Nakata on that day in 1944.

Nakata’s entry into the ‘other world’ takes place during something that comes to be known as the ‘rice bowl hill’ incident. Although this incident is narrated through chapters that occur far apart from one another in the text, the narrative may be reconstructed as follows: Nakata’s teacher, a woman whose husband has been killed fighting in the Pacific theater, has a vividly erotic dream about her husband one night. The following day, as she leads her class – Nakata’s class – into the mountains to hunt for wild mushrooms, her menstruation suddenly begins, her blood flow unusually heavy. After cleaning herself as best she can, she buries the bloody towel far from the group, yet not long thereafter finds Nakata standing before her, presenting her bloody towel to her in silence. Possessed by a sudden, uncontrollable rage, she beats him savagely about the face. Shortly after this, a silvery glint is seen in the sky – the teacher assumes it is a lone B-29 bomber, perhaps on reconnaissance. Suddenly all the children collapse in a collective faint. All awaken some hours later, with no apparent ill effects, save Nakata, who remains in his coma for several weeks. When at last he awakens, he has not only lost his memory but the ability to construct new memories as well. He has, however, acquired the ability to speak the language of cats. He spends the rest of his days a ward of his family, and later the state, unable to read or write but useful to the families in his neighborhood in locating lost pets.

If previous Murakami fiction is any guide, we may conclude that like the protagonist of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kumiko in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he simply remained for too long in the ‘other world,’ to the point that he could no longer maintain connections with his shadow. In fact, more than once Nakata explains to other characters that he is without a shadow, and so we may view in him an idea of what might have happened to the protagonist of that earlier work if, rather than remaining in the forest that stands between the physical and metaphysical worlds, he had instead managed to escape the Town and return to the physical world without his shadow – one of four possible scenarios Murakami identifies for the earlier novel.

But what actually happened to Nakata’s shadow after its separation from him in 1944? Did it die? Did it remain in the ‘other world?’ Or did it perhaps find other hosts – other physical beings – with which to join when they happened to wander too far into the forbidden forest and found themselves in the metaphysical world? This appears to be what has happened with Nakata’s shadow, not just once but several times.

If the inner mid or spirit is indeed capable of moving from one body to another, as previous Murakami texts have clearly suggested to be the case, it is not implausible to suppose that Nakata’s shadow originated with the husband of his childhood teacher (which is why he so unerringly located her menses, a silent communication to her from the dead), and later inhabited not only Saeki’s boyfriend at one time (which would go far in explaining the question of why Saeki tells Nakata that ‘I have known you from a long time past’ but also Kafka himself in the form of ‘the Boy Called Crow’? Having taken our (admittedly speculative) reading this far, why not supposed that Nakata’s shadow at one time inhabited Kafka’s real father, Tamura Koji, as well? If Saeki actually were Kafka’s mother, this would help us to understand why she was drawn to him in the first place.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, the trickster spirit now calling himself Johnny Walker, for if Nakata’s shadow can move from body to body, so too can Johnny Walker. If we imagine in this work a sort of pursuit, in which the Johnny Walker spirit and Nakata’s shadow chase one another through time, across generations, driving each other from one body to another, we might gain insights into several of the riddles Murakami sets up in this story, among them (a) why Saeki’s boyfriend was killed in Tokyo, and (b) why Saeki left Kafka and his father behind, if indeed she is his real mother.

It may also mean, of course, that Kafka is his own father.

This reading is but one of many, intended not to offer a definitive explication of Kafka on the Shore but rather to highlight the extraordinarily open-ended text that results when the fixed nature of the ‘self’ – combining flesh and spirit – is disrupted and the two become separable. But what is the role of the ‘other world’ in this instance? To answer this, we need to look at the moments at which flesh and spirit break apart. This occurs most notably in the chapters in which Nakata, led to the home of Tamura Koji and Kafka in Tokyo by a large black dog, is confronted with the horror of Johnny Walker’s harvest of cat’s souls.

The sequence, which stretches across three chapters, begins in a vacant lot where Nakata has been waiting patiently, seeking information about a missing cat named ‘Goma.’ While he waits, an enormous black dog approaches him and, without actually speaking, communicates to him that he must follow it. This he does and soon arrives at the home recently abandoned by Kafka. The house itself is protected by an ‘old fashioned gate,’ and upon being led into what appears to be the study, Nakata find it quite dark. In the dim light admitted through the closed curtains, he can see only that there is a desk in the room and the silhouette of someone seated beside it. The atmosphere of the room, reminiscent once again of Room 208 in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and the living room of Rat’s villa in A Wild Sheep Chase, marks it as a part of the ‘other world.’

There he meets Johnny Walker (but not being a drinker, does not recognize his iconic costume), whose description is equally otherworldly, a mass of negatives: ‘His face had no distinguishing characteristics. He was neither young nor old. He was neither handsome nor ugly’ He is, rather, just ‘in-between’ all descriptors, marking his place as something belong neither to ‘this side’ nor to ‘over there’ but to both. He is, however, at present located in the ‘other world,’ and it would seem that the only way he can break free of the metaphysical realm and emerge into the physical is through his own death. This is why he has summoned Nakata.

His choice is an apt one, for mild-manner though Nakata appears, his self-description as a ‘man without a shadow,’ an ‘empty shell,’ makes him the ideal tool for the job. Nakata’s physical self is, finally, a mere portal, a conduit between the physical and metaphysical worlds, and into his body virtually any force of Will may lodge. However, he must be brought to the proper ‘temperature’ before this may occur. Johnny Walker brings Nakata to his boiling point by committing acts of brutality – of war, as he himself terms it – against the very cats who form Nakata’s circle of attachment. He urges Nakata, likewise, to do his duty as a soldier:

‘You have never killed anyone, nor have you ever wished to kill anyone. You don’t have that tendency. But listen here, Mr. Nakata, there are places in our world where that kind of logic doesn’t work. There are times when no one cares much about your tendencies. You need to understand that. Like in war…When war starts, you get taken to be a soldier. When you’re taken as a soldier, you sling your rifle and head off to the battlefield, and you have to kill enemy soldiers. You have to kill a lot of them. No one cares whether you like it or not. It’s what you have to do, and if you don’t, you get killed instead.’

In this statement, Johnny Walker reveals his true character as a spirit: he is a force of chaos, of bloodlust, the madness that possesses ordinary people in times of war. If we consider his function in terms of history, we recognize that the moments of chaos and struggle in our world are precisely those in which he has been released from the ‘other world’ to play his role on ‘this side.’ Within this context we may understand better why Nakata’s shadow chose to remain in the ‘other world’ in 1944; like Kizuki and Naoko in Norwegian Wood, and indeed like Saeki and her lover (who, I maintain, actually was Nakata’s shadow) in this novel, he sought to escape the ravages of violence that had gripped the physical world, to find a place of perfect, utopian peace. Herein we discover the cause of the inherent, incessant conflict that exists and always will exist between this spirit and Nakata’s shadow, the former seeking to foment chaos and destruction, the latter to stamp it out. This is why, in the face of Johnny Walker’s acts of brutality – indeed, witnessing any acts of brutality – Nakata’s ‘empty vessel’ connects with its inner core and is overcome by the urge to return violence for violence. ‘Something was definitely beginning to happen inside him. A violent confusion was attempting to change the constitution of his flesh.’ And at last, unable to bear any more, ‘Nakata stood up from his seat without a word. No one – not even Nakata himself – could have stopped him. He advanced with great strides, and without hesitation snatched up one of the knives on the desk.’ He then plunges the knife into the breast of Johnny Walker, right up to the handle. Johnny Walker laughs hysterically throughout his own murder, for he knows that this killing is the key to his release into the physical world.

This explication of the role of the spirit taking the form of Johnny Walker gives us insight into the nature and role of the other important spirit in this novel, that taking the form of Colonel Sanders. Moving beyond the obvious dichotomy their forms represent as “spirit’ and ‘flesh’ (whiskey and meat), we note that Colonel Sanders’s character is, on the whole, marked by the pleasures of the flesh, not only of eating but of sex. When Nakata and his young sidekick Hoshino reach Takamatsu, the latter takes a stroll around town and meets up with Colonel Sanders, who, in addition to promising to help him locate the Gateway Stone that blocks the portal between the physical and metaphysical worlds, procures for him a stunning prostitute – significantly, a university student majoring in philosophy, thus representing the rational, ordered nature of the universe. From this we conclude that where Johnny Walker is a force of destruction and death, Colonel Sanders is a force of life, plenty, fertility, and pleasure.

It would, however, be a mistake to assign value judgments to these two sides of the dichotomy, for the two spirits transcend such human considerations. Rather, both are necessary, both forces of nature, each defining the other. Johnny Walker’s behavior is undoubtedly disturbing, disruptive, but he is not evil; rather, he serves to awaken a destructive impulse that lurks beneath the surface, both for Nakata and for Kafka. Jung’s model would suggest that both Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders represent ‘archetypes’ of the inner mind, each with an equal capacity to guide or to deceive. Both transcend human emotions, and this is why neither of the two spirits betrays what Colonel Sanders (somewhat disdainfully) terms ‘feelings,’ and yet each is indelibly linked to our human minds as well. When Colonel Sanders dominates, we behave in a manner that leads to order and tranquility; when Johnny Walker takes over, we lose our cool and act as beasts. For Jung, the latter would be considered the darker, more primitive side of the inner shadow, emotional and predictable. ‘Closer examination of the dark characteristics – that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow – reveals that they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality,’ writes Jung. ‘On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgment.’ This is essentially the transformation that overcomes Nakata when he witnesses brutal acts: his dark inner self rises to the surface, forcing his surface persona into a subordinate position, and lets loose its destructive urges. The question, as always, is one of balance between our own inner forces of nature, between the inner and outer minds, the flesh and the spirit, the physical and the metaphysical aspects of our selves. The balance is achieved through control (or, at times, the lack of control) over the flow of psychic energy between the two realms. Nakata’s role, as Iwamiya also notes, is to facilitate the flow these elemental forces from one realm to the other, keeping them balanced in their respective realms. ‘When overwhelmed by the power of the other side, life in this world loses its weight and becomes distorted. When the distortions of the world are corrected, these distortions are also corrected. The burden of correcting these distortions falls to Nakata.’ He does this, as we have seen, through the violence that is released when his own psychic energy is ‘brought to a boil,’ so to speak, but also by opening the Gateway Stone, permitting the necessary flow and equalization of energy between the physical and metaphysical worlds.”


So…what did you think of the book? Of Strecher’s reading of it? Share your thoughts and questions with the group!

My next post: Tuesday, September 2, my introduction to our next book, Murakami’s broadest vision to date: 1Q84.


“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.”

Kafka on the Shore
Chapters 25-36
By Dennis Abrams

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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.’


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

“Just like an iceberg, what we label the ego or consciousness is, for the most part, sunk in darkness.”

Kafka on the Shore
Chapters 13-24
By Dennis Abrams

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Are you all enjoying the book as much as I am?

First things first, let’s catch up with Kafka:

Oshima approached Kafka, offers him lunch, and they discuss the great Japanese writer Matsume Soseki. Kafka asks if Oshima can find him a place to sleep (since he’s checked out of the hotel for fear of discovery; Oshima says he might be able to get him a job at the library where he can sleep at night; in the meantime, Oshima drives Kafka to a bare bones cabin in the woods of Koshi, warning him not to wander too far off into the woods. He leaves him there, promising to return in a couple of days.

Left alone in Oshima’s cabin, on the first night there in his sleeping bag, he is scared by noises and solitude, but Crow appears and reproaches him for his weakness. The next day, Kafka reads part of a book about Adolf Eichmann, to which Oshima has attached a note saying that one must accept responsibility for one’s imagination.

Kafka walks into the woods, stopping short of losing his way, and is jarred by how easy it is to lose oneself. After dinner he writes down everything he has done since running away and the next day, goes further out into the forest.

After three days in the cabin alone, Kafka feels he is growing connected with nature. On the afternoon of the fourth day, he is outside sunbathing in the nude when Oshima arrives to pick him up. They clean up and head back to Takamatsu, where Oshima says that Kafka now has a job as a library assistant and an empty room to use as a bedroom. Oshima tells Kafka Ms. Sakei’s story: How she fell in love as a teenager with the son of one of the wealthy sake distributors that own the library While engaged, the man went to Tokyo for school. Ms Sakei went to visit him and wrote a song for him called…”Kafka on the Shore.” She played it for friends, was asked to record it, and became a huge pop hit. The husband was killed during a student protest, and she disappeared for a long time. One day, shortly after her mother’s death, she suddenly returned to Takamatsu and took over the running of the library.

Kafka moves into the library, and the next day, while running the front desk with Oshima two “serious” women enter. After examining carefully scrutinizing the entire library, they complain to Oshima that the building is in violation of gender equality standards: there are no separate bathrooms, and the books are separated by gender with women shelved below men. Oshima tries to explain that the library has no room for another restroom and is understaffed, but the women accuse him of misogyny. Oshima fires back, telling that he is in fact a woman, born with female genitals (although his breasts never developed) and he lives life as a gay man with a male identity. The women leave. Oshima and Kafka sit together, Oshima telling him that he is sickened by people who act out of dogmatic certainty and who lack imagination; Kafka assures him that his opinion of Oshima hasn’t changed now that he knows he is transsexual.

Kafka reads about a murdered artist in Tokyo: the artist is his father, Koichi Tamura, and Kafka is terrified because the night his father was killed was the same night he blacked out and woke up covered in blood. Although he knows he could not have gone to Tokyo in that time, he wonder is if he is still somehow responsible. He reveals to Oshima his big secret: when he was young, his abusive father told him that one day Kafka would murder his father and sleep with both his mother and his sister.

But that night, Kafka is jolted awake in his room in the library and sees the spirit of a beautiful teenage girl. She looks at a painting in the room of a boy looking at the water from a beach, and suddenly vanishes. Kafka is in love but doesn’t know what to do. The next day, he asks Oshima to get him a copy of Ms. Saeki’s song on vinyl – Oshima gets a copy from his mother, and Kafka sees that the picture of Ms. Saeki on the record sleeve is a slightly older of the spirit he saw in his room. Kafka asks Oshima if a ghost can exist even if the person is still alive; falling back on Japanese folklore, Oshima says that it can exist if the intentions of the living person are evil. After listening to the song, Kafka determines that it has been written about the painting on his wall. The song also mentions knives, a rain of fish, the “entrance” stone” and the Sphinx (Oedipus’s nemesis, reflecting Kafka’s father’s Oedipal prophecy). He goes to sleep, hoping to see the spirit again.

And now Nakata:

Nakata updates and collects his daily fee from Goma’s family, not mentioning that the information he obtains comes from cats rather than humans. Going back to the empty lot, he is approached by Kawamura, once again babbling nonsensically, and a tough cat he names Okawa. Okawa says he has seen Goma, but is unwilling to talk about him. A large black dog approaches Nakata and demands that he follow him, and then takes him to another part of town, to the house of a strange yet elegant man who calls himself Johnnie Walker. Mr. Walker offers to give Goma to Nakata in exchange for his cooperation in a “game” – it turns out that Johnnie Walker has been looking for Nakata for quite some time.

Returning to the residence of Johnnie Walker, a dog leads Nakata to a large freezer, where he finds the severed heads of many cats – but not Goma’s. Johnnie Walker explains that he is taking the souls of cats to create a “mystic flute” to steal even larger souls. But, he says, he has grown tired of life and asks Nakata to kill him, agreeing to return Goma to Nakata, but Nakata “feels” that he cannot kill a man. Johnnie Walker responds by telling him that this is a war and Nakata will learn to kill. Walker then proceeds to murder two paralyzed cats in front of him, cutting out their still-beating hearts and eating them before beheading the animals. He then tells Nakata that there are two more cats to kill before he gets to Goma – Kawamura and Mimi. Walker kills Kawamura, but before he can cut Mimi open, Nakata attacks him and kills him with his own butcher knife. Nakata takes Goma and Mimi with him as he leaves Johnnie Walker’s house.

Nakata wakes up (not unlike Kafka) in the vacant lot with Mimi and Goma. He has no blood on him (unlike Kafka) but he does remember killing Johnnie Walker. And now he is unable to understand the cats. Nakata returns Goma to her family and goes to the local police station, where he confesses to the duty officer that he has committed a murder. The officer (not surprisingly) thinks that Nakata is mad, but he humors him. Nakata politely thanks him, and on the way out the door, tells the officer that he should bring an umbrella the next day because it will rain fish. The next day, 2,000 sardines and mackerels (love the specificity) fall from the sky. The officer is, naturally, shocked, and is even more shocked later in the day when a famous artist is discovered stabbed to death.

Nakata want to escape Tokyo by traveling west on the Tomei Highway, but doesn’t know how to use the train system. Although embarrassed that he can’t read, he stops two businesswomen on the street to ask them how to get a ticket. They get a friend of theirs, Togeguchi, who happens to be heading west, to take Nakata with him and then Nakata can hitchhike from there. On the road, Togeguchi confides all his secrets to Nakata who listens quietly. At a rest stop, Nakata hitches a ride with an older trucker who talks politics, and tells Nakata that he himself is a communist. At the next rest stop, Nakata has a harder time finding a ride, and after seeing some bikers beating a man, he feels the same rage building that he felt with Johnnie Walker. And then…suddenly…leeches???…fall from the sky. After the leech rain, Nakata gets a ride with a slightly vulgar young driver called Hoshino, who says that Nakata reminds him of his own senile grandfather.

Hoshino buys Nakata dinner at a rest stop – Nakata says he need to go over the bridge to Shikoku and figure out his next step from there. The next day, Hoshino arrives at his destination and tells Nakata to wait for him in a nearby park while he unloads his freight. We learn that when Nakata finished primary school, he learned a trade: traditional woodworking. He assisted a carpenter into his middle age, until the mentor died and the shop closed. Afterward, he invested the money he’s saved for his retirement in a condo project sponsored by his cousin, but the cousin lost all the money to loan sharks and disappeared. Since then, Nakata has lived in a flat arranged by one of his brothers, the company of cats being his only joy until now. Hoshino returns and, intrigued by Nakata, asks if he can join him in his travels for a few days. Nakata agreed.

The two travel by bus to Shikoku, and when they arrive Nakata is extremely tired. Hoshino finds a cheap hotel; Nakata warns him that he will sleep for a long time and, indeed, he does not wake up for more than 24 hours. In the meantime, Hoshino (a most likeable character I think) spends his time playing pachinko, drinking, and wondering why he finds Nakata so interesting. We learn that Hoshino was often in trouble when he was younger, often picked up by the police and always bailed out by his grandfather. When Nakata finally wakes up, he eats two days worth of food before declaring that they should go to Takamatsu next. But before they check out Nakata performs an extremely painful adjustment on Hoshino’s back, curing his chronic stiffness – a truck driver’s curse. When they arrive in Takamatsu, Nakata announces that they need to find the “entrance stone,” although he does not know what it is.

And now we see the two narratives beginning to come together: and not only geographically. The periods of unconsciousness. Rage. The rain of fishes and the “entrance stone” from the song “Kafka on the Shore” actually taking place in Nakata’s narrative. And…is “Johnnie Walker” Kafka’s father?


Some favorite things:

“But people need to cling to something,” Oshima says. “They have to. You’re doing the same, even though you don’t realize it. It’s like Goethe said: Everything’s a metaphor.”

And if you’d like to hear Brendel playing Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D (one of my favorite pieces) click here.

“That’s why I like to listen to Schubert while I’m driving. Like I said, it’s because all the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what a human is capable of – that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging. Do you know what I’m getting at?”

Oshima’s note on Eichmann: “Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: ‘In dreams begin responsibilities.’ Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise. Just like we see with Eichmann.” (Of course, as Proust said: “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.”

Kafka’s sudden fear when he’s briefly “lost” outside the cabin. “Just like Crow said, the world’s filled with things I don’t know about.”

Chapter 16 is brilliant but too painful to excerpt from. But the parallels between Johnnie Walker and Eichmann are all too clear: the rules must be followed.

Oshima will be a part of the library. What does that mean?

On turning-points in stories: “That’s how stories happen – with a turning point, an unexpected twist. There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”

Oshima again: “Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

Nakata is so amenable – he has so many “favorites.”

The comedy of the rain of mackerels and sardines.

Oshima’s revelation; Kafka’s acceptance. “But there’s one thing I want you to remember, Kafka. These are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imaginations are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Nakata’s journey, the people he meets, Mr. Hagita buys him eel. FINALLY!

Leeches??? Why leeches?

Could Kafka have killed, directly or…indirectly his father?

“And the sense of tragedy – according to Aristotle – comes, ironically enough, not from the protagonist’s weak points but from his good qualities. Do you know what I’m getting at? People are driven into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex being a great example. Oedipus is drawn into tragedy not because of laziness or stupidity, but because of his courage and honesty. So an inevitable irony results.”

Kafka reveals his father’s prophecy. His sense of being polluted.

Kafka’s father: “A theory is a battlefield in your head.”

Nakata’s truck driver Hoshino. His lack of awareness of World War II: “A long time ago I lived in Yamanashi. During the war.’ “No kidding,” the driver said. “Which war was that?” And…”Japan was occupied by the Americans back then. The seashore at Enoshima was filed with American soldiers.” “You’ve gotta be kidding.” “No, I’m not kidding.” “”Come on,” Hoshino said, “Japan was never occupied by America.” And when Nakata tried to explain what he knows, “Yeah? Whatever…I told you I don’t like long stories.”

The Tale of Genji and living spirits. Oshima again: “In Murasaki Shhikibu’s time living spirits were both a grotesque phenomenon and a natural condition of the human heart that was right there with them. People of that period probably couldn’t conceive of these two types of darkness as separate from each other. But today things are different. The darkness in the outside world has vanished, but the darkness in our hearts remain, virtually unchanged. Just like an iceberg, what we label the ego or consciousness is, for the most part, sunk in darkness. And that estrangement sometimes creates a deep contradiction or confusion within us.”

Nakata’s “memories” of the sea.

The lyrics of Kafka on the Shore:

You sit at the edge of the world,
I am in a crater that’s no more (when Kafka saw the spirit, he felt like they’d sunk into a crater lake.)
Words without letters.
Standing in the shadow of the door.
The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard,
Little fish rain down from the sky,
Outside the window there are soldiers,
steeling themselves to die.
Kafka sits in a chair by the shore,
Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world, it seems.
When your heart is closed,
The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx,
Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams.
The drowning girl’s fingers
Search for the entrance stone, and more.
Lifting the hem of her azure dress.
She gazes – at Kafka on the shore.
Is the entire book in that song?

And from Jay Rubin:
“This old man, Nakata, is the main protagonist of the story in the even-numbered chapters (which are narrated in the third person and the past tense). He does not enter the action at his present age, however, until Chapter 6, when we find him in a Tokyo neighborhood talking to the local cats. He is a gentle old fellow beloved by the residents of the district for his uncanny ability to find missing cats, though no one realizes he can actually understand their speech. Chapters, 2, 4, 8, and 12 provide background material suggesting (but never really explaining) how he got that way in his childhood.

Those chapters drop back to 1946 and 1972 to provide written testimony concerning mysterious events that occurred in rural Yamanashi Province in 1944, the penultimate year of the Second World War. A 26-year-old woman named Setsuko Okamochi testifies to Allied occupation authorities that she was guiding a group of schoolchildren on a hike in the hills when something (possibly involving an American warplane) caused all the children to pass out. All but one of them, a nine-year-old boy named Nakata, came out of their swoon unscathed, but Nakata spent three weeks in a coma and was so severely affected that he lost the ability to read and write, and his memory and capacity for learning were nearly nonexistent thereafter. The teacher’s follow-up letter of 1972, addressed to a Tokyo psychologist who had been an expert witness in the case, reveals that the carefully compiled documents those comprise those earlier chapters had been based on her false testimony. In fact, she had had a wildly erotic dream the night before that brought on a premature menstrual flow during her outing with the children, and she used a towel to stanch the unusually heavy rush of blood. When the children went into the woods to hunt for mushrooms, the Nakata boy came out holding the bloody towel, and she was so mortified and filled with sexual guilt that she beat him into unconsciousness. The other children were so shocked by the spectacle that they went into a group swoon and conveniently forgot everything that had happened.

Nakata’s mental strangeness, then, began with blood and erotically tinged violence. And although he is a sweet, simple soul, his killing of Kafka’s father (if that is what it is) is a horrendously violent and bloody scene. In fact, coming as it does after several chapters looking back to the Second World War and after Kafka’s reading (in the other extermination of course) of a book about Adolph Eichmann’s bureaucratically brilliant extermination of the Jews, this chapter (16) is a searingly visceral demonstration of the impossibility of ending violence with violence. In a move that perhaps only Murakami could have pulled off, it raises the intensity of hits unspoken – but intensely felt – message by introducing the reader to talking cats.

This business about the talking cats, plus the note of doubt in the previous paragraph, questioning whether what we take to be Nakata’s killing of Kafka’s father really is that, need some explaining. When he first enters the action at his present age of 60 plus, Nakata is really just talking to a cat, the first of several with which he communes, speaking in his special stilted style. Chapter 6 begins:

“Hello there,” the old man called out.
The large, elderly black tomcat raised its head a fraction and wearily returned the greeting in a low voice.
“A very nice spell of weather we’re having.”
“Um,” the cat said.
“Not a cloud in the sky.”
“…for the time being.”
“Is the weather going to take a turn for the worse, then?”

If anything, the cat speaks more naturally than Nakata, whose idiosyncratic speaking style is one of the most widely admired features of the novel. He rarely uses personal pronouns to refer to himself, for example: he calls himself ‘Nakata.’ He is a gently comical character (in contrast to the deadly serious Kafka, who rarely smiles in the book), and the many scenes involving cat talk are sweet and amusing. Given the third-person narrative and the lack of intrusive commentary by the narrator, however, there is nothing to call into question the reality of the cat’s talk. We are not seeing the world through Nakata’s eyes, and the seeming objectivity forces us either to accept the reality of what is presented or to throw up our hands in exasperation. Murakami never flinches as he brings on a cast of highly individualized cats, including the lovely Siamese Mimi (names for La Boheme’s heroine, she lives in a house with a cream-colored BMW 530 parked out front) and the well-meaning Kawamura-san, whose ineptness with language produces hilarious nonsense (‘I don’t mind at all, the tallest of heads.’)

Nakata has been commissioned by a neighborhood lady to find a missing cat called ‘Goma,’ but Mimi tells him the other cats think a local cat-catcher has got her. Several more cats have been captured recently by this “bad person.” When the naïve Nakata can’t imagine what such a person would do with snatched cats, Mimi enlightens him regarding the various scientific, musical instrument and gourmet possibilities, plus torture for its own sake, because “there are twisted people like that in this world.” She describes the cat-catcher as being very tall, wearing a strange tall hat and long leather boots. She also warns Nakata that he is an extremely dangerous man, adding, “This world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence. Please keep that in mind.”

Nakata, however, cannot fully grasp what she means, though he is soon to find out. His fuddled, innocent mind is not much different from those of the placid souls living in peaceful democratic societies unaware that violence can attack them at any moment – in the form of Aum-style terrorism or the forces of nature or the intrusions of a self-righteous right-wing government. Nakata feels he has nothing to fear from the cat-catcher because he himself ‘was a person, not a cat.’ In retrospect, however, this recalls the famous words attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984): ‘In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.’

The one who ‘comes for’ Nakata is a big, black dog with bloodstains and chunks of flesh on his fangs. He guides Nakata to an old-fashioned house in an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and Nakata begins to feel uneasy. The dog shows him into a dark reception room or study, which could be the same room where Kafka took 400,000 yen of his father’s money from a drawer. The tall man sitting in the shadows of this room, however, cannot possibly be Kafka’s father, the famous sculptor Koichi Tamura. His clothing comes straight out of nineteenth-century Europe. He wears a black silk top hat, a long-skirted, tight-fitting red jacket over a black waistcoat, flesh-tight white trousers and long black boots. His left hand grips a black walking stick with decorative gold knob.

‘You know who I am,’ I assume?,’ he says to Nakata and is disappointed with Nakata’s negative reply. He then strikes the pose of a man jauntily striding down the street, but still Nakata has no idea who he is. “Perhaps you’re not a whiskey drinker, then,’ he says, and Nakata affirms the accuracy of this observation.

The man gives up and reveals his identity to Nakata: he is Johnnie Walker, the whisky icon. This still means nothing to the illiterate, non-drinking Nakata, but by this time, most readers are probably open-mouthed in amazement. Johnnie Walker?! What is he doing in this book? As if this itself were not shocking enough, Johnnie Walker has the dog guide Nakata to the kitchen, where he finds a freezer full of decapitated cats’ heads. Back in the study Johnnie Walker congratulates Nakata on the good timing of his arrival: Johnnie Walker says he is about to harvest a new crop of cats’ heads, and among them will be Goma, the young female cat Nakata has been hired to find. If, however, Nakata will do Johnnie Walker the favor of killing him, Goma will be allowed to escape unharmed. ‘First you fear me. Then you hate me. And finally you kill me,” he says.
‘But why – why ask me?’ Nakata asks. ‘Nakata’s never ever killed anyone before. It’s not the kind of thing I’m any good at,’ Johnnie Walker replies:

‘I know. You’ve never killed anyone, and don’t want to. But listen to me – there are times in life when those kinds of excuses don’t cut it any more. Situations when nobody cares whether you’re suited for the task at hand or not. I need you to understand that. For instance, it happens in war. Do you know what war is?’

‘Yes, I do. There was a big war going on when Nakata was born, I heard about it.’

‘When a war starts people are forced to become soldiers. They carry guns and go to the front lines and have to kill soldiers on the other side. As many as they possibly can. Nobody cares whether you like killing other people or not. It’s just something you have to do. Otherwise you’re the one who gets killed.’ Johnnie Walker pointed his index finger at Nakata’s chest. ‘Bang!’ he said. ‘Human history in a nutshell.’

Johnnie Walker demands that Nakata make up his mind to kill him immediately. ‘The knack to killing someone, Mr. Nakata is not to hesitate. Focus your prejudice and execute it swiftly.’ He then begins pulling cats out of a leather case one at a time, eviscerating them, and yanking out and eating their still-beating hearts. Goma will be the last one, he says. Like Adolph Eichmann, Johnnie Walker works methodically, but with an added touch: he whistles ‘Heigh-Ho!’ like Disney’s Seven Dwarfs. Nakata does not know the first cat, but the horror rises as his friends begin to emerge from the case. Suddenly the killing takes on a highly personalized aspect. This is no longer the disposal of faceless victims by an anonymous Kafkaesque machine but the slaughter of recognizable individuals. Now we know why Murakami let us become so intimately acquainted with his varied cast of cat characters. Those sweet, silly chapters prepared us to share Nakata’s horror. First comes Kawamura, the cutely mixed-up speaker. Nakata has been feeling something inside him changing, but still he cannot bring himself to kill Johnnie Walker before he kills Kawamura and savors his heart. Will Nakata kill to stop the killing? And if so, what will he gain? ‘This is war,’ Johnnie Walker reminds him. Then he pulls Mimi out of the bag.

‘Johnnie Walker,’ Nakata groans. ‘Please, stop it. If you don’t Nakata’s going to go crazy. I don’t feel myself any more.’

Johnnie Walker answers calmly. ‘So, you’re no longer yourself…That’s very important, Mr. Nakata. A person not being himself any more.’
Now it is time for even the gentle Nakata to act. He snatches up a large knife and plunges it into Johnnie Walker’s stomach and then his heart. Johnnie Walker laughs aloud, coughs up the cats’ hearts he has just eaten, and collapses at Nakata’s feet. Everything and everyone are smeared with blood. Gathering up Mimi and Goma, Nakata sits on a sofa and sinks into darkness. He has killed to stop the killing, he has saved his friends from death, but in doing so he may have cased to be the sweet old man we knew as Nakata and instead joined with ‘human history in a nutshell,’ perpetuating the endless cycle of murder. What will he be like when next we meet him? Will he have regained his memory, killed so as to become a ‘normal’ human being? Will he still be able to talk to cats? Murakami could have lectured his readers on the subject of war, but instead he has created this spellbinding surreal drama –using cats and a whiskey logo! – to make us feel the dilemma faced by those who want peace but also human justice.

The bloody Chapter 16, then, is one of the most intense and profound pieces of writing that Murakami has ever produced, raising questions that haunt the memory of the blood-soaked twentieth century and continue to plague mankind in the twenty-first, which has got off to such a heartbreakingly violent start. The value – or success – of the novel must hinge on what Murakami does with the universal issues to which he has given such urgent expression.

Nakata’s killing of Johnnie Walker has occurred at the exact time (and perhaps in the same house) as the killing of Kafka’s father on 28 May – the time when Kafka, hundreds of miles away in Shikoku, loses consciousness for four hours and wakes in a shrine compound with blood on his hands and clothing. Although we will read ‘real’ newspaper reports of the death of the sculptor Koichi Tamura, this phantasmagorical narrative is all we will ever see of Nakata’s or Kafka’s involvement in the murder.

Johnnie Walker has to be one of Murakami’s boldest challenges to the forces of high seriousness in the evaluation of literary art…”


Thoughts? Questions? Anything?

And a question for me for the group.  My plan was that we’d read 1Q84 next, then follow up with Murakami’s newest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. But since that’s coming out this week, would you rather read it first while it’s “hot” and then go back to 1Q84? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

My next post: Tuesday, August 19; Chapters 24-36, Kafka on the Shore.