"Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, and feelings we can never get back. That's part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads - at least that's where I imagine it - there's a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in awhile, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you'll live forever in your own private library."
A boy runs away from his home, from his dad, and from a prophecy on the day he turns fifteen. An old disabled man, who could talk to cats, embarks on a journey with a destination he will know only when he reaches there. Two parallel journeys, two contrasting protagonists, fantastic and strange people, and events that they encounter on their way eventually converge on the verge of an alternate universe.
Kafka On the Shore by Murakami is a multi-layered novel that can be interpreted according to the personal readings of each reader. It explores a wide variety of themes and ideas in its plot, which sometimes feel like the concoction prepared by witches in Macbeth. The writer himself has said that it needs to be read several times to solve all the riddles. My intention in this post is to list out what I think about the book subjectively.
The cover of the copy that I read was instrumental in my understanding the book. I saw that several other versions of the cover are also available, but this particular one very cleverly illustrates its central philosophy. The cover bears a resemblance to the yin-yang symbol of Chinese philosophy. On the cover, we see a circle in which one half is a human face (probably a boy) and the other is a cat. Yin-yang symbolises the interconnection of opposite forces, like male and female or morning and night. One is essential for the existence of the other, even though they bear no resemblance in any manner.
The cat points to the character of Nakata, the old man who can talk to the cats, and the boy points to Kafka Tamura, the runaway kid. Both characters are, in many ways, diametrically opposite from each other. While Kafka is a fifteen-year-old fit boy, fitter than any fifteen-year-old can be, who has run away from fulfilling a prophecy, Nakata is an old person who is weak and is on his way to fulfilling one. While Kafka is burdened with memories of somebody else's past, Nakata has lost his own. While Kafka is a voracious reader, Nakata cannot read or write. Just like yin and yang joining together to create balance and meaning in life, the odysseys of these two extreme protagonists converge to give meaning to the chaotic existence of all the characters in the novel.
Music is a very important component of Kafka On the Shore. The title itself is a poem written by Miss Saeki, the aloof librarian of the library in which Kafka finds solace, when she was a young girl of fifteen. She composed it into a song, which became famous. Kafka also likes to hear music, and Murakami is very deliberate in providing the details of every song he listens to in the entire novel. But my favourite references to music in the book are the ones that Hoshino, the truck driver who accompanies Nakata on his mission, explores. The account of his hearing and appreciating Beethoven in a cafe is one of the most beautiful passages I have read in any novel.
Kafka Tamura is running from a prophecy that closely resembles the story of Oedipus. His mother leaves his father and him, taking his sister along with her, when he is very young. His father always evokes the prophecy that Kafka is destined to kill his father and then sleep with his mother and sister. It is to escape this prophecy that Kafka takes flight, but he suspects every female that he meets to be his lost mother or sister. This Oedipal complex is the backbone of Kafka's character arc.
The connection between the past and memories is an important element of the novel. Kafka has faint memories of his mother and sister, and he is in a constant search to put a face to them. When he meets the aloof Miss Saeki and hears her story from Oshima, the hemophilic gay transgender librarian, he also becomes a part of it. He tries to pry open the closed memories of Miss Saeki and imagines himself as her long-dead fifteen-year-old lover. Miss Saeki herself lives inside a self-made wall of memories. On the contrary, memories of Nataka were stolen from him at a young age, along with his faculties to read and write or to think coherently.
Kafka On the Shore employs magical realism heavily; you find an excessive amount of reality whenever highly improbable magic is not thrown at your face. The book has talking cats, a man resembling Johnny Walker murdering cats to make flutes with them, Colonel Sanders pimping in the back alleys of a Japanese town, a heavy downpour of fish and leeches, and these are just a few of them. The detailed and descriptive narration of routine life gives the magical portions of the story a realistic form.
The novel contains several dream sequences seen by Kafka, and many times it becomes difficult to differentiate dreams from reality. It is also possible to imagine the whole story as the lucid dream or imagination of an anxious young boy tormented by the loss of his mother. It can explain the alter ego of Kafka, a boy called Crow (Kafka in Czech means Crow), who motivates Kafka for his adventures, the mysterious appearance of ghosts and several supernatural elements, the alternate reality that is devoid of memories, and a suspected murder.
The novel alludes to an alternate reality that several characters happen to visit at one point or another, transforming their lives for better or worse. It is shown that memories disappear when one visits this realm. The novel hints that to reach this territory, one has to transcend a labyrinth and cleverly connects it to the Mesopotamian method of studying labyrinth-like intestines to reveal prophecy. All this connects to the larger theme of Oedipal prophecy and makes it necessary for Kafka to study his labyrinth, the one inside him, to reach the alternate universe. This makes the novel a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, of Kafka Tamura.