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Haruki Murakami: 海辺のカフカ (Kafka on the Shore)

I have already established the basic nature of a Murakami novel. His heroes tend to be loners, in an apparently conventional job (at least by the standards of the world in which they live), get involved with a mysterious woman and various characters straight out of American hard-boiled detective novels, have to go on a mysterious quest (of whose nature they are generally unsure and which often involve supernatural elements) but end up with a nice girl. This one generally follows the same course. Our hero is a fifteen year old loner. He is running away from home (Tokyo), ending up in Takamatsu. On the journey, he meets, of course, a mysterious girl, though this one plays a relatively minor role in the book, except for the possibility of who she is. He is on a mysterious quest though, apart from looking for himself and his family, he is not entirely sure what he is looking for. The book is less a hardboiled detective story and more a ghost story than his previous ones but the style is still familiar. And, as with his earlier works, there are converging plots – three, instead of the normal two – which, initially, seem totally unrelated but do, eventually meet.

Our hero is called Kafka Tamura. Kafka is not his real name but one he has adopted because of his sympathy with the writer and also because he has an alter ego called The Crow (Kafka is Czech for crow). As we later learn, he is the son of a famous sculptor. His mother and sister left some time ago and he has not seen them since and nor does he know where they are. He does not like his father, so leaves home, without any real direction in mind. Meanwhile, we have two other plots going on. The first consists of military reports of an event that took place in the war. A group of Japanese schoolchildren is taken to a nearby wood by their (female) teacher. They see a shiny object in the sky, which may well be a B-29. The children are left to pick mushrooms. When the teacher returns she finds them all unconscious. She runs for help but the children, with one exception, all recover consciousness, both oblivious to what has happened to them and, apparently, unscathed both physically or mentally. Both the Japanese military and, after the war, the US military investigate the incident and endeavour to keep it very quiet. The one child who did not recover consciousness is taken to Tokyo (he is an evacuee from there) and we only learn later what happened to him. The third plot concerns an old man, with the same name (Nakata) as the child who did not regain consciousness, who is living in present-day Tokyo. He clearly has mental problems. We later learn that he cannot read, lives on his own and depends on a Government grant. However, he can talk to cats and supplements his income by finding people’s lost cats, which he does by asking other cats their whereabouts.

Things develop when Kafka finds and then works in a mysterious private library, we learn that the teacher who was with the children had not told the full truth and that the cat that Nakata was looking for may have been the victim of a mysterious cat kidnapper. Initially, the only connection between the three stories seems to be blood. Kafka wakes up one morning in the forest covered in blood (not his own) but does not know why. The teacher confesses that she had a heavy period when taking the children to the wood and had briefly lost contact with the children to deal with it and Nakata has his own confrontation with blood. Kafka finds himself mysteriously attracted to Miss Saeki, the director of the library, both sexually but also in a way he cannot explain but is clearly something to do with his memories, and he gets to know her better. Nakata finds himself impelled to leave Tokyo (which he has never done before since his childhood) and head South, which he does with the help of a lorry driver, Hoshino. Both Kafka and Nakata know that they are looking for something, though they are not sure what it is or where it is. Of course, they find it, as their two stories converge.

Once again, Murakami tells us an incredibly gripping but complex story, whose outcome is difficult to guess. It goes beyond his usual hardboiled US detective story, entering into the realm of ghost stories, fantasy and magic realism. While it is still the story of a young man finding himself, this story seems to be more personal than his other novels but, as always, it is a novel well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosa, Tokyo in 2002 in Japanese
First English translation in 2005 by Knopf