Born in 1949, Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer. His books are extremely popular and naturally they have been bestsellers in Japan. His work has been translated into 34 languages and even these have touched the million mark as far as sales are concerned. Awards are the natural appreciation for his work and he has got many of them. Some of them are Jerusalem Prize, Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, World Fantasy Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize. ‘Kafka on the Shore’ was published in 2002 and it was translated to English by Philip Gabriel. Some of his other books have been translated by popular writers like J.D. Salinger and Raymond Carver. One section of the Japanese writers criticize him for having western influence. Haruki’s works were surrealistic with an undertone of sadness. In most of his stories ‘loneliness and alienation’ is the recurrent theme and Kafka on the Shore is no exception. Steven Poole the chief of The Guardian noted that Haruki Murakami was “among the world’s greatest living novelists.”
‘Kafka on the Shore’ is a story about a fifteen year old boy who runs away from his father and from some dark omens associated with his father. His mother and sister left him when he was four. He lives as a runaway for a week and in those days he experiences situations and meets people which an ordinary fifteen year would never have met. Parallel to this story is a description of an incident in the World War II and this narrows down to the life of Nakata and Hoshino. This is a parallel story but at one point it meets the story of Kafka and then it tapers off to end the story of Kafka’s experience. The life of Kafka is narrated by Kafka and story of Nakata is narrated in third person. The whole story keeps flitting from the real to the surreal. You have cats talking, slimy creatures, apparitions coming in and going and all this makes the narration very different and sometimes it’s difficult to know if what is happening is real time or otherwise. This is the style of Haruki Murakami and his power of imagination is what he is popular for.
Kafka Tamura the fifteen year old boy has an imaginary friend Crow who tells him what is going to happen in his life. The prologue titled ‘The Boy named Crow’ gives a gist of the story. Crow tells Kafka “And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm.” The experiences will cut through his blood. When others bleed he will see the blood on him. So the readers are prepared what to expect from the rest of the story. Kafka himself says “On my fifteenth
birthday I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library.”
Kafka experiences some dark omens within himself but in spite of it he leaves home with enough money, clothes and a few other items. He is also haunted by inescapable prophecies – the prophecies made by his father that Kafka would kill him and have sex with his mother and sister. Most importantly he takes with him the photo of himself and his sister. He takes a ticket to Takamastu. The second chapter suddenly shifts to an incident in World War II called ‘Rice Bowl Hill Incident’ where some children went into a trance like state and they wake up on their own except for Nataka. Kafka meets a girl, Sakura who he thinks might be his lost sister and they become friendly. He lives in a hotel for some time. He spends his time his day in a library and gets friendly with Oshima. The library is owned by Miss Saeki and he begins to love this woman while he feels it is his mother. He moves into the library to stay after one night stay at a Oshima’s cabin inside a forest. Kafka feels Miss Saeki was his mother. She does not give any answer but both of them get close and share a physical relationship. Meanwhile in the other story Nakata wakes up from his trance in a hospital and when he does he does not remember anything. The Nakata we meet is the old Nakata who talks with cats. Kafka’s father is killed and the police come searching for him and Miss Saeki’s assistant Oshima takes him away to his cabin. Nakata search for the purpose of his life ends with meeting Miss Saeki in the library. They behave as if they have known each other for long but there is no proof for that. He asks her to burn all her files and tells her it is time to leave to which she agrees. She hands over the files to Nakata and they (Nakata and Hoshino) go out to burn the files. When Oshima comes into the Miss Saeki’s room, he finds her dead with her face down on the desk. It is after her death that Kafka actually experiences surreal incidents with Miss Saeki and she tells him that she had left some people she should not have left. Nakata also dies soon after and Kafka returns to Tokyo to face the police and by now he was “the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world.”
There are a few prominent themes in this story and they are Body Versus Mind, Destiny and Foretelling, Seclusion and Music.
Body versus Mind
The most prominent theme that stands out is the “Body versus Mind”. This theme occurs right through the story, in almost all the chapters. In fact it is known as a ‘metaphysical novel’. It is a combat between mind and body. Many characters have a conflict in them. They find themselves in the wrong body. Kafka the protagonist is only fifteen year old but has a mind that is as turbulent as an adult he wants to develop a body to match the mind. He succeeds in this but what his mind throws up based on his dark childhood is more than what the body can do. So he undergoes a whole lot of experience to become the one and the only strong fifteen year old. Oshima, Miss Saeki’s assistant is a woman caught in a man’s body with a condition of haemophilia. So he has to be careful not to be caught in any accident. Apart from this there is a perpetual turmoil within body and the mind but he covers it quite efficiently. Nataka as a child goes into a coma. While in coma he moves out of the body and travels into another world and when he returns he does not remember anything from the past. However he seems to be able to talk to cats. Kafka and Nataka have no control over their mind or their body. Kafka feels Miss Saeki is his mother but is attracted to her and finally has sex with her. So too Nataka also get into a frenzy whipped up by Johnny Walker and kills Walker.
Destiny and Foretelling
There are strange happenings in the story which is beyond the control of the character. Destiny is portrayed very strongly and prophecies are seen to happen, however impractical it seems. Kafka has heard prophecies that he would be physically intimate with his mother and even though it seems impossible, the reader gets the feeling that it did happen. Whether the world runs on fate is debatable but the characters in Kafka on the shore are driven by the belief in fate. Crow the imaginary friend of Kafka foretells right at the beginning “You’re going to be the world’s toughest fifteen year old” and these words according to Kafka was “… Like he was carving the words in a deep blue tattoo on my heart.” The prophecies have a deep impact on Kafka. He also feels he murdered his father in spite of being miles away. He believes that it was his anger against his father, the thought which killed his father. The relationship between Nataka and Hoshino is strange; a chance encounter and Hoshino leaves his job to follow Nataka . He had this strange feeling that Nataka was like grandfather and that he had a lot to learn from him. Nataka predicts that it would rain fishes and later leeches and it happens. The theme of prophecies is evidently seen through Nataka. Miss Saeki is also so emotionally connected to her dead lover that she feels Kafka is her lover re-born. The obsession of the characters in destiny and prophecies govern their choices in life and makes them hapless victims.
Characters of Murakami are lonely and experience loss. Kafka is lonely even though he stays with his father and then runs away from this loneliness. For a short while he has good company by befriending Oshima but once again he is left in the cabin and he is all to himself. Miss Saeki is the personification of loneliness and she does not share her life with anyone. She feels Kafka is her boyfriend re-born but still does not share her life with him. Nataka becomes lonely as his memories of his younger days are completely wiped off. And his solace is Hoshino who also a loner. All the characters fight their loneliness and seclusion in their own style.
Lot of space and words are given to music in this story. Right at the beginning when Kafka is packing his bags he makes sure that he is carrying his walkman and discs as he had to have his music. There are lengthy discussions between Oshima and Kafka on different genres of music and musicians. It is music that keeps him company in the cabin in the forest and he feels let down when the batteries dry up. Miss Saeki also is fond of music and it can be because her lover was extremely fond of music. She said about him “…….. holed up in his room, reading and listening t music.” Nataka and Hoshino also discuss Bach, Mozart , Beethoven. Hoshino meets Oshima and in a little while tells him “You know a lot about music , I can tell.” There is the song ‘Kafka on the Shore’ written by Miss Saeki and the song is played many times by Kafka. Music is the only grounded theme that is woven into an otherwise metaphysical story.
Characters in the story
The story mostly revolves around Kafka and Nataka but all the characters that appear in the story have quite a prominent role to play. There are a few of them whose roles are insignificant.
Kafka the protagonist for one half of the book is the narrator of his story. He is a boy who is a boy at the mental level and it was quickened by his father and his prophecies. He believes in fate and thinks the prophecies will happen and is tormented by that thought. Every woman he sees, he fears is his mother or sister. He finds some solace when he meets Miss Saeki, Oshima and Sakura.
Nataka is the other protagonist and his story is narrated in third person. As a young boy he was in coma for a long time because of a mysterious illness. Once he survived he could not remember anything from past. Instead he could speak with animals which he himself found very strange initially and after a while he made it his livelihood; he found lost pets. At the end of the story he enters into Kafka’s story, meets Miss Saeki and helps her to pass away to the other world peacefully.
Hoshino is a flamboyant young man who cannot stick to any job and finally lands up as a truck driver. His chance meeting with Nataka proves to be good for him. He sees his grandfather in Nataka and decides to go with Nataka and he does so till the end of Natkak’s life which happens in a couple of days after meeting him.
Oshima is the most balanced person in the whole story. However he has a lot of conflicts within himself. He works in the library. He is a transgender and a haemophiliac. He feels he is caught in the most imperfect body. Yet his escape moments are the library, music and discussions with Kafka.
Miss Saeki is the owner of Komura library. She is a middle-aged woman and is very elegant. She has dedicated her life for the library which is in the name of her lover who died in the war. She pines for him till the very end. She speaks less and loves music. When Nataka meets her it is as if they have known each other and the tryst with death is signed by both of them.
Sakura is a young girl Kafka meets in a bus in his escapade. She is attractive and friendly. Kafka thinks she might be his sister and his father’s prophecy also wells up in his bosom. A little of what he feared happens but Sakura is not rattled. He is confused but Sakura is clear; they were destined to meet and as the days go by she enquires about his welfare like a sister.
The Boy Crow
The Boy Crow is not a real character and appears as the conscience keeper of Kafka. He is clear in his thoughts and predicts Kafka will better for his experience.
Kafka on the Shore is a known for its metaphysical elements. The symbol of the ‘entrance stone’ is almost beyond comprehension. It is not clear why this stone is mentioned all the time. ‘The Boy Crow is more plausible. The story talks about the nature of consciousness and also about the gap between actions and thoughts. The inner thoughts are experienced as reality. The author Haruki Murakami believes there is deep connect between the body and the mind but he portrays this connection with a disconnect. Most characters do not like their bodies. This is a story which throws away all the known paths of imagination and takes the reader on a different route.