Reading Kafka on the Shore: Chapters 1-16

Author: Haruki Murakami, 2002
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback, 467 pages

Things have been hectic lately, but I managed to squeeze some reading in. In fact I tried to pick up several books to see if something would strike my mood, but only one seemed to catch my attention – Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. This novel is relatively new in the author’s repertoire, being published only nine years ago, so it might seem a bit offtrack from my resolution to read more classics. However, I can bet that in a couple of decades Murakami will be joining the ranks of the must-reads. Consider this a head start! So far I have finished first sixteen chapters, and already have a lot of things to say.

The novel starts with two separate storylines. All odd chapters are dedicated to the runaway fifteen-year-old, whose reasons behind leaving home are still unclear. He takes an alias of Kafka Tamura and travels south to the island of Shikoku to spend his days reading in a famous library or exercising in a gym. Kafka reminds me a bit of the another one of Murakami’s characters from Norwegian Wood – Toru. Both of them are drifters in life. They have no particular goal and live through observing others, rather than planning for their own future. I can’t say I particularly like passive characters like that, but it seems that the author is rather fond of them. Kafka is presented to us as rather mature for his age – teaching himself, philosophizing on works of great writers, resolving to become the toughest teenager in the world – but I am not convinced. He has no idea how he is going to survive, does not look for the means to earn money to aid him, yet he spends quite a bit on a hotel, gym, and train to the library. He never bothers to ask himself what will happen once the money is gone. And Oshima told you not to go into the woods, what makes you think you know better?!

Sakura is another familiar character for me. She too reminds me of a Norwegian Wood character – Midori. The two are similar in their confusing sexual ways. They both send confusing messages to the protagonist, appearing sexually open, yet unavailable. It’s like they are saying, You can touch me if you want, but you can’t… Sakura sort of makes me angry, when she invites Kafka to get in bed with her, because both couldn’t sleep, but tells him not to get any ideas. She suggests they pretend to be brother and sister, telling him that she doesn’t fool around with guys because she has a boyfriend. Next thing we know she’s giving him a handjob. Oh, it can’t be helped, I guess! Mr. Murakami, where are you finding girls like that?

The even chapters of the book are dedicated to Nakata – an elderly simpleton who has an ability to talk to cats. His story begins during World War II, when a strange accident in the woods wipes out all of Nakata’s memories, including all his knowledge about the world. I love the way his story unfolds through several reports and interviews of witnesses by the US military. There is a delicious scent of mystery lurking on every page that makes me hurry through Kafka’s story to indulge some more in Nakata’s. After some of the background is told, we get to follow Nakata in present, while he is looking for a local cat that has disappeared without a trace. As a result of interaction with several strays, Nakata finds out that a strange man in a tall hat might be the reason behind the cat’s disappearance. Here I must warn anyone planning to read the book: the part with the man in a tall hat is extremely gruesome, especially if you are an animal lover like me. Usually I am very accepting about all kinds of twisted characters, but this one really disturbed me.

So far, I have been trying to guess a few things about the story, and here are my curiosities:

  • Could Sakura be Kafka’s real sister?  (which is disturbing on so many levels)
  • Are things Kafka imagining come to life? And what about sudden violence?
  • Was the accident in the woods military experiment or a natural occurrence?
  • What is up with Johnny Walker – that sick and twisted mofo? (hate him)
  • Can Nakata really talk to cats or is it the product of his disability?
  • At what point would the stories of two characters merge, because I bet it is bound to happen?

Based on my criticism, it might seem that I am not liking the novel at all. But it is not true! Murakami really makes me feel! Every page is stirring an emotion, puzzles me, makes me argue. When Kafka is spending a night alone in the woods, trembling at every unfamiliar sound, I am there – also feeling the heavy silence and watching eyes of the unseen monsters. When Nakata is forced to watch the horrific show of the man in a tall hat, I am too struggling with the emotions of utter helplessness. Murakami manages to bring you up on ethereal prose, and throw you back with horrors of human mind. After the first sixteen chapters, I am in love!

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