The Shadow's Missing Half
Murakami stretches himself in search of a metaphor
By Michelle Lim
Kafka on the Shore
"You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow." Otsuka, an elderly black cat, advises Nakata, an old simpleton who was once the brightest little boy in class before an ill-fated school excursion resulted in the mysterious loss of his wits.
At once dreamily romantic and grotesquely sinister, Kafka on the Shore resumes the philosophical flight of fancy begun in earlier Murakami works such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase.
Self-named Kafka Tamura, 15 years-old and with an alter-ego named Crow, runs away from home in an attempt to flee an oedipal curse called down by his father, a famous sculptor with the gruesome hobby of collecting cats' souls. Kafka ends up in a magnificent though obscure private library run by a beautiful middle-aged librarian Miss Saeki who is possibly his real mother. In a converging plot line, Nakata, a charmingly childlike idiot savant, begins a courageous journey to save the world with truck driver Hoshino, an unlikely but eminently likeable hero. Fish and leeches rain down from the sky along their way, conjured by Nakata's umbrella in the battle against evil.
Familiar motifs appear from previous Murakami novels: cats portending ominous events, time-travelling multiple selves, detached shadows with destinies of their own, fantastical creatures who would be at home in a Terry Pratchett novel, inventively psychotic murderers, and plenty of mind-blowing sex described in fluid detail. Even the narrative technique of multiple lines weaving through alternate chapters is not new to the Murakami reader, albeit with a denser web this time round.
On the basis of narrative structure alone, one might be tempted to judge Kafka on the Shore a less mature work than Murakami's earlier The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Equally ambitious in scope, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle appears the more tightly organised and evenly paced. While Kafka on the Shore has its sublime moments, the overall pace is uneven, stuttering awkwardly at some points. Beautifully elegiac passages are interrupted by an almost adolescent self-consciousness.
Yet in terms of emotional and psychological complexity, Kafka on the Shore is far grander. One can only admire Murakami's restless quest for alternate realities that can retain their ethereal beauty in the hard-boiled wonderland we live in. Gabriel Garcia Marquez had the easier job, whisking up his brand of magical realism from the sultry heat of South America, a region already impregnated with the mystical. Working with the stark and impersonal urbanscape of Japan, Murakami nevertheless rises to the occasion with style.
Kafka on the Shore, despite the gravity of its philosophical themes, does not lack charm or laughter. The insouciant magic is uniquely Murakami. A sexy prostitute spouts Hegel while expertly blowing off a client. God is a postmodern concept and Colonel Sanders (himself a personification of an abstract concept) relates how American general Douglas MacArthur could order the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to "quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying that he was just an ordinary person", thus proving that Japanese gods could be "tweaked and adjusted" at will.
In Murakami's contemporary Japan, entrances to mysterious sub-realms are teased out by means as varied as shrine stones, flutes made from stolen cats' souls, concepts disguising themselves as Colonel Sanders, and B-29s that can hypnotise a group of schoolchildren into a mass trance.
Taking inspiration from the past and present with equal ease, Murakami explores the lofty inevitability of Greek tragedy, raises unanswered questions from the depths of Japanese military history, renews mystic beliefs from classic Japanese literature (Tales of Genji), all while maintaining a down-to-earth sensibility about the really important things in life – eel with rice, delicious Kansai omelettes, steaming miso soups with shellfish, salt-grilled mackerels and good coffee.
Murakami paints with words, and his images are often so poetically lovely that it is easy to conclude that Kafka on the Shore is coded in metaphor. The poignant undertow, pulling from beneath even the most irreverent bits, draws us under, as if "he was carving the words in a deep blue tattoo on my heart." Standing with Kafka on the shore, one can almost hear the faint sound of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's bells, carried in by the tide of Murakami's sea.
But Kafka on the Shore wants to be more than a novel about life; it wants to be life. Murakami has set an almost impossible goal for himself. Oshima, the inter-sexual librarian assistant, whispers to the young protagonist, "The world is a metaphor, Kafka Tamura. But for you and me this library alone is no metaphor… nothing else can ever take its place."
Alas, Kafka on the Shore is not meant to be Murakami's Galatea and the writer's apology sounds through the voice of Kafka Tamura: "What I really wanted to say didn't get across… Kafka's complex, mysterious execution device [in 'In the Penal Colony'] wasn't some metaphor or allegory – it's actually here, all around me."
But in his willingness to risk, Murakami has stretched himself further than ever, resisting the alluring stupor of formulaic success. And he'll get there eventually – it's a matter of time before his shadow's missing half finds its way home.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005