Kafka on the Shore
First edition (Japanese)
Umibe no Kafuka
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
Comprising two distinct but interrelated plots, the narrative runs back and forth between both plots, taking up each plotline in alternating chapters.
The odd chapters tell the 15-year-old Kafka's story as he runs away from his father's house to escape an Oedipal curse and to embark upon a quest to find his mother and sister. After a series of adventures, he finds shelter in a quiet, private library in Takamatsu, run by the distant and aloof Miss Saeki and the intelligent and more welcoming Oshima. There he spends his days reading the unabridged Richard Francis Burton translation of One Thousand and One Nights and the collected works of Natsume Sōseki until the police begin inquiring after him in connection with a brutal murder.
The even chapters tell Nakata's story. Due to his uncanny abilities, he has found part-time work in his old age as a finder of lost cats (notably, Murakami's earlier work The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle also involves searching for a lost cat). The case of one particular lost cat puts him on a path that ultimately takes him far away from his home, ending up on the road for the first time in his life. He befriends a truck driver named Hoshino, who takes him on as a passenger in his truck and soon becomes very attached to the old man.
Kafka on the Shore demonstrates Murakami's typical blend of popular culture, mundane detail, magical realism, suspense, humor, an involved plot, and potent sexuality. It also features an increased emphasis on Japanese religious traditions, particularly Shinto. The main characters are significant departures from the typical protagonist of a Murakami novel, such as Toru Watanabe of Norwegian Wood and Toru Okada of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, who are typically in their 20s or 30s and have rather humdrum personalities. However, many of the same themes re-occur in Kafka on the Shore as were first developed in these and other previous novels.
The power and beauty of music as a communicative medium is one of the central themes of the novel—the very title comes from a song Kafka is given on a record in the library. Metaphysics is also a central theme of the novel as many of the character's dialogues and soliloquy are motivated by their inquiry about the nature of the world around them and their relation to it. The music of Beethoven, specifically the Archduke Trio is also used as a redemptive metaphor. Among other prominent themes are: the virtues of self-sufficiency, the relation of dreams and reality, the threat of fate, the uncertain grip of prophecy, and the influence of the subconscious.
- Kafka Tamura: The character's true given name is never revealed to the reader. After having run away from home, he chooses the new name "Kafka", in honor of writer Franz Kafka. Kafka is described as being muscular for his age and a "cool, tall, fifteen-year-old boy lugging a backpack and a bunch of obsessions" . He's also the son of the famous sculptor Koichi Tamura. His mother and sister left the family when he was four years old and he can't remember their faces. He occasionally interacts with his metaphysical alter ego "The boy named Crow" ("Kafka" sounds like "kavka", which means "jackdaw", a crow-like bird, in Czech). Crow tells Kafka throughout the novel that he must be "the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world" and thus motivates him to pursue the journey of running away from home. It is heavily suggested throughout the novel that he, Miss Saeki, and Nakata are somehow connected by an 'alternate reality' on which metaphysical objects from people's subconsciousness takes form leading them to find an 'essence' to their lives in exchange for taking away a 'part' of their soul.
- Satoru Nakata: Nakata lost many of his mental faculties when he was a kid, as one of sixteen schoolchildren out on a mushroom-gathering field-trip toward the end of World War II, he was rendered unconscious following a mysterious flash of light in the sky - although it is later revealed that the light wasn't the main cause of the incident. This incident is referred to in the novel as the "Rice Bowl Hill incident". Unlike the other children, who regained their consciousness shortly after, Nakata remained unconscious for many weeks, and, upon finally awakening, found that his memory and his ability to read had disappeared, as well as his higher intellectual functions (i.e. abstract thinking), essentially making him a "blank slate". In their place, Nakata found he was able to communicate with cats. It is hinted that Nakata and Miss Saeki has been through the 'alternate reality' before and it's where they left a 'part' of their 'soul' leading to their shadows being irregular compared to normal people's shadows.
- Oshima: A 21-year-old, intellectual, haemophiliac, and gay transgender man. He is a librarian and an owner of a cabin in the mountains near Komura Memorial Library who becomes close to Kafka throughout the course of the novel. He becomes the mentor of Kafka as he guides Kafka to the answers that he's seeking in his journey.
- Hoshino: A truck driver in his mid-twenties. He befriends Nakata, due to his resemblance to his own grandfather, and transports and assists Nakata towards his uncertain goal.
- Miss Saeki: The manager of a private library, where Oshima works and where Kafka lives through much of the novel. She was previously a singer, and performed the song "Kafka on the Shore", which unites many of the novel's themes. Although her outward appearance makes her look normal, she suffers from an existential crisis after the death of her boyfriend. She journeyed to the 'alternate reality' when she was 15 years old due to her strong desire to keep her happiness forever, eventually discovering the 'essence' used to compose "Kafka on the Shore". However it led to that version of herself 'separating' from her. It is heavily hinted towards the end of the novel that she's Kafka's mother.
- Sakura: A young woman whom Kafka meets on the bus by chance. She assists him later in his journey. It is vaguely hinted throughout the novel that she might be Kafka's sister.
- Johnnie Walker: A cat killer who plans to make a flute out of cats' souls. His name is taken from Johnnie Walker, a brand of Scotch whisky, and he dresses to appear like the man featured in the brand's logo. However, he is in fact an 'abstract concept' - an object used only to fulfill the desires of a person that has been to/connected by the 'alternate reality'. In this case, he was used to fulfill Kafka's desire to murder his father although with Nakata committing the act.
- Colonel Sanders: An 'abstract concept' who takes the form of a pimp or hustler. He is named after, and appears similar to, Harland Sanders, the founder and face of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He helps Hoshino to find the 'entrance stone' to the 'alternate reality' and influences Hoshino to a great extent.
- Goma: A lost cat owned by Mrs. Koizumi.
- Otsuka: An elderly black cat who Nakata easily communicates with.
- Kawamura: A cat who was addled after being hit by a bicycle. Though they can communicate, Nakata is unable to understand Kawamura's repetitive and strange sentences.
- Mimi: An intelligent Siamese cat.
- Okawa: A tabby cat.
- Toru: A black cat that temporarily became an 'abstract concept'.
Understanding the novel
After the story's release, Murakami's Japanese publisher invited readers to submit questions to its website on the meaning of the book. Murakami responded personally to around 1,200 of the 8,000 questions received.
In an interview posted on his English language website, Murakami says that the secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it several times: "Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write".
Many fans of Haruki Murakami have come to agree Kafka on the Shore is better understood after reading Murakami's earlier works, especially Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Some long-time fans consider Kafka on the Shore to be a spiritual sequel to both Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as well as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
John Updike described it as a "real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender". Since its 2005 English-language release (2006 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize-winning translation by Philip Gabriel), the novel has received mostly positive reviews and critical acclaim, including a spot on The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2005 and the World Fantasy Award.
- Miller, Laura (February 6, 2005). "'Kafka on the Shore': Reality's Cul-de-Sacs". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Mitchell, David (January 8, 2005). "Kill me or the cat gets it". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Block, Summer (July 2005). "Familiar and Alien". January Magazine. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Burns, John (March 31, 2005). "Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami". Georgia Straight. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Lewis-Kraus, Gideon (February 6, 2005). "Convergence of separate odysseys: A questing boy and an old man spark Murakami's ambitious novel". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Jones, Malcolm (January 24, 2005). "The Call of the Wild: A Great Novel With Talking Cats and Colonel Sanders". Newsweek. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Griffin, Michelle (February 19, 2005). "Kafka on the Shore". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- "An Interview with Haruki Murakami". Book Browse. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Updike, John (January 24, 2005). "Subconscious Tunnels: Haruki Murakami's dreamlike new novel". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- "The 10 Best Books of 2005". New York Times. December 11, 2005. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
- Dirda, Michael (May 20, 2007). "A surreal novel of suspense from one of Japan's most exciting writers". Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
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- Exorcising Ghosts Page with plenty of links to reviews
- Official Haruki Murakami Website
- New Yorker Review by John Updike
- Kafka on the Shore Reviews at Metacritic.com
- 'A Sure Path... to Where?', review of Kafka on the Shore in the Oxonian Review
- Review of Kafka on the Shore, Shogokawada.com
- Review of Kafka on the Shore, ARC Review
- Review of Kafka on the Shore, Complete-review.com
- Kafka on the Shore, reviewed by Ted Gioia (The New Canon)