I finished Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore last night, struggling against sleep while lying on my crimson couch, turning the last pages slowly while listening to Beethoven’s 8th Symphony.
Perhaps it was how quickly I devoured the novel, or how injudiciously I chose the times to read it, but I was not as satisfied at the novel’s end as I have been with Murakami’s other novels. I had a sense of his seeking to more actively convey meanings and truths, of his authorial voice rising closer to the surface, of his characters being more symbolic than real.
Did the end drag? Not quite, but it lost that impossibly light and easily sustained pace that characterized his other novels. In Vinicius de Moraes’ song, Felicidade, there’s a verse that reads as follows:
Happiness is like feather that the wind goes taking through the air.
It floats so lightly, but its life is brief,
For it needs the wind to blow without end.
That wind ceased to blow halfway through this novel; instead I sensed Murakami occasionally muscling the narrative towards its end, seeking to join his disparate threads, to take his premises and unite them. Elements were left unexplained, but not tantalizingly so, causing the reader to speculate and wonder, but instead frustratingly so.
[Spoilers Below – Caution in reading!]
For instance, much of the beginning of the novel deals with the children who passed out on Rice Bowl Hill, and the army’s interogations of those involved. We never learn why the army took such interest. We never learn the cause of the their comas. We never learn the importance of the teacher’s loss of control over the discovery of her menstrual blood soaked towels, and why she then beat Nakata. We never hear back from the Doctor to whom her letter is addressed. Instead, this elaborate set-up to Nakata’s emptying is allowed to slip away, and much like Nakata himself does at the end of the tale.
Furthermore, we never learn what’s up with Kafka’s father, Johnnie Walker. Much of his tale is implicit in what happens elsewhere in the novel, and we must conjecture what his goals and methods were. He slays cats to forge a flute out of their souls, and forces Nakata to in turn slay him so as to – what – inhabit Nakata’s body, and use that as a portal to enter through the entrance stone? Who was Mr. Walker, and why did he have these goals? How was his being struck by lightning a catalyst for this deviancy? Am I correct in assuming that slimey slug-like thing that emerged from the dead Nakata’s mouth at the end was Mr. Walker? How did simply closing the entrance stone steal it of its powers? Were its powers thus dependant on their being an opening to the other side?
Johnnie Walker, Nakata, and Hishoni seem almost extraneous to the real plot. They could have been cut from the novel, resulting in a much more coherent novella. Don’t get me wrong – I found these characters at times delightful, engaging, eerie and interesting – but they weren’t intergrated into the novel in a manner that satisfied me.
I am fully aware that perhaps I need to reread this novel to derive greater understanding of what Murakami was attempting to do, but sitting here, I am left with a series of ‘whys’ that I cannot answer.
The story was, I believe, about the boy Kafka, and his relationship to his mother, Miss Saeki. It revolved around his understanding why he was abandoned as a child, and forgiving his mother for doing so. Oshima is a delightfuly erudite and witty secondary character that enriches this central plot, but besides him none of the other characters seem directly involved or necassary. Johnnie Walker’s malignancy seems extraneous to his central plot, as does Nakata’s travels, origins and the opening and closing of the entrance stone, that to me serves simply to allow Kafka the chance to reach an understanding with his mother.
The more I think about this novel, the more confused I become. Murakami is too experienced and talented a writer to have simply overlooked or not considered these questions. Thus what am I missing? Nakata lives and operates in a surreal and fantastical side of the world that allows him to directly interact with what could almost be seen as metaphors for the forces at play in Kafka’s mind and heart. But Nakata dies, his own work unfinished, his own dreams unrealized, unless it was only death that could restore his shadow, his mind and all that which was stolen from him during his childhood. Johnnie Walker plays the role of both Kafka’s father, distant and cold, and the evil Johnnie Walker, who’s repulsive plotting and power plays seem only to affect Nakata.
In short: Kafka on the Shore is a pleasing read, a voyage through Murakami’s usual world of surreal and contemplative events and characters, but one which in retrospect fails to sustain or justify its premises and elements.
I’m going to read it again, and pay special attention to the philosophy and theory that Murakami makes, and see if I can understand what was going a tad bit better.