Follows the End of the World pattern of two separate stories told in alternating chapters that touch on each other in suggestive ways. Here, though, the exact connection between them is never quite explained, and they never totally merge.
One half of the story is narrated in the first person by a 15-year old boy who calls himself Tamura Kafka. Kafka is an assumed name (we never learn his real one) adopted both because he likes the author and because he likes what the word kafka means in Czech – crow. Kafka in fact has a companion – an alter ego? a familiar? an imaginary friend? – called The Boy Named Crow, who may in fact at least sometimes take the form of a crow. TBNC appears occasionally – not frequently – but his role seems to vary. Sometimes he gives Kafka a good pep talk, sometimes he takes over Kafka’s narration and narrates Kafka’s actions to him – the narration slips into the second person here – and sometimes he seems to act as the chorus in a Greek play, commenting on the action (the similarity between the Japanese karasu and korosu seems appropriate here).
The connection to Greek tragedy is made explicit before we’re too far into the book. At the outset of the book Kafka runs away from home, and eventually we learn why: because he’s grown up under a prophecy, or a curse, that he’ll one day murder his father and sleep with his mother – and sleep with his sister, too, for good measure. This curse is pronounced on Kafka at a young age by his father, after his mother has left the family and taken his sister with her. So he’s grown up without a mother – without even knowing what she looks like – and with only a single picture of his sister. After he’s run away he’s tormented by the fear/hope that any woman he meets could be either of these. Makes sexual attraction rather complicated.
He drifts west from Tokyo and ends up in Takamatsu, on Shikoku, taking refuge at the private Komura Memorial Library. A bookish lad, he feels at home there, and he’s quickly befriended by the assistant to the head of the library, a youth named Oshima. Oshima is a very dapper, intelligent young man who reveals himself before long to be a transsexual – biologically female but choosing to live as a man, and a gay man at that (this is how he puts it, meaning he’s attracted to men). Oshima had a troubled youth himself, so he takes pity on the young runaway and arranges for him to live in the library in a spare room.
The head of the library is an ethereally attractive 50-something woman named Saeki who has a mysterious past. She had grown up with the young heir of the Komura family, and they’d been in love – Oshima tells of the old Greek myth that people had originally been composed of two halves, and that as a curse upon humanity those halves were split, and so we’re forever searching for our other half. Saeki’s love for Komura was a perfect circle. But then he went to college in Tokyo, got caught up in the student movement, and got beaten to death by radicals who mistook him for a spy. Saeki never recovered. She disappeared from Takamatsu for decades, and only returned a few years ago to take over as head of the library. Still she wanders around aloof, and is clearly lost in her memories.
Kafka is lodged in the room that had once belonged to Komura. On the wall is a painting of a boy sitting on a seashore. The painting is titled “Kafka on the Shore.” He soon learns that as a 19-year-old Saeki had written a pop song by that title, inspired by the painting, that had been a huge hit – she still lives off the royalties, although she never wrote or performed another song. Now, it’s not lost on Kafka-kun that he kinda looks like the kid in the painting, and that when Saeki was his age she was in love with Komura, or that Saeki is the right age to be his mother now. In fact he very soon becomes convinced that she is. And then the 15-year-old Saeki appears in his room at night a couple of times – Lady Rokujo-like spirit projection is Oshima’s explanation – and then the present-day Saeki comes to his room and they make love… Prophecy fulfilled. And Kafka was willing, even while he was horrified: he’s in love with Saeki, both the present version and the 15-year-old version.
Meanwhile, the father-killing part of the prophecy has already been fulfilled: earlier we learn that Kafka’s father, a sculptor, was found stabbed to death in Tokyo on the same night that Kafka wakes up covered with blood on the grounds of a shrine in Takamatsu, with a blank in his memory of several hours. Although physically there was no way he could have done it, Kafka is convinced that he spirit-projected a la Rokujo and killed his father. Prophecy fulfilled.
The sister-violating part is also, arguably, fulfilled when, late in the book, he has a dream about a 21-year-old girl he’d met on the bus to Tokushima. He suspected she was his sister, although with no particular justification, and in the dream he rapes her. He’s convinced this, too, fulfills the prophecy.
And why the prophecy to begin with? His suspicion is that Saeki, during her wandering years, met his father and had two children by him, then left him, and his father put the curse on Kafka because he was so miserable he could imagine nothing better than to be delivered by the son of his absent lover…
All of this is resolved, more or less sort of, when Kafka wanders into the woods surrounding Oshima’s cabin (where he’s holed up because the police have been searching for him in connection with his father’s death) and visits what seems to be the netherworld. He’s led there by two WWII soldiers known to have disappeared on this mountain, and while there he meets first the 15-year-old Saeki and then the adult Saeki, newly arrived. He’s happy to stay there, but she tells him he must go back, must live and remember her. She more or less sort of confirms his suspicion that she’s his mother, and asks his forgiveness, which he gives. Then he goes back to the world of the living, where he learns (though he suspected it) that Saeki has died of a heart attack. He decides to go back to Tokyo and finish junior high, and Oshima says he’s welcome to come work at the library when he’s ready.
Meanwhile: the other storyline, narrated entirely in the third person, concerns an old man named Nakata. As a boy during the war Nakata had been beaten into a coma by a teacher, and when he recovered he was retarded. Lost all his memory, and never relearned how to read. As an old man in Tokyo – in the same Nakano-ku that Kafka lived in – he survives on city assistance and a little help from his elite brothers. And, because he can talk to cats, he picks up a little extra cash finding lost cats.
One day the search for a lost cat leads him to the house of Johnnie Walker – a guy who looks just like the Johnnie Walker on the whiskey bottle (although Nakata doesn’t recognize him). He says he’s not Johnnie Walker, but just borrowed his identity to manifest himself here. He’s been capturing cats, torturing them, eating their hearts, and stealing their souls to make a flute that will allow him to collect more souls. But now he’s weary and he wants Nakata to kill him. Nakata is a gentle soul, so Johnnie kills a couple of cats in front of him to arouse his violence, and then Nakata picks up a knife and stabs him to death. This all happens before we learn that Kafka’s father has been stabbed, so when the news of his father breaks we realize that somehow this Johnnie Walker was Kafka’s father.
Nakata tries to confess to the police, but they think he’s crazy and let him go. So he leaves Tokyo, hitchhiking westward. Along the way he realizes that he can no longer talk to cats, but can make odd things fall from the sky – leeches or fish. Why he’s traveling west even he doesn’t know, but he has something he needs to do. Eventually he is taken in by a young Nagoya truckdriver named Hoshino who, reminded of his beloved late grandfather, ends up taking off work and chaperoning Nakata on his mission, whatever this is.
Without knowing it they’re following in Kafka’s tracks, first to Tokushima and then Takamatsu. In Takamatsu, Nakata realizes he needs to find a stone called the Entrance Stone. He has no idea how to do this. But while he’s sleeping, Hoshino goes out on the town and runs into a guy who looks just like, and calls himself, Colonel Sanders, like the KFC mascot. This guy says he knows where the stone is, and will tell Hoshino, but Hoshino has to hire one of his hookers first – he’s a pimp. Hoshino finally agrees, sleeps with the girl, and then Colonel Sanders takes him to a shrine and shows him the stone – a round white stone the size of an LP.
Hoshino takes it back to Nakata. Nakata, after conversing with the stone, tells Hoshino he needs to open it: i.e., flip it over. This takes all of Hoshino’s strength, since the stone has miraculously become almost infinitely heavy, but he lifts it. Then Nakata says he needs to do something else, and has Hoshino drive him around until they stumble across the Komura Library. This is the place, says Nakata, and the next day they go in. Nakata meets Saeki and talks with her alone. He tells her the entrance stone is open, and that his role is to put things back in order. She asks if this is because she went in before – Nakata has no idea. He leaves. Later that day is when Oshima finds her dead.
Back at their apartment (a hideout prepared for them by Colonel Sanders), Nakata goes to sleep, and then dies in his sleep. Hoshino knows that he has to close the entrance stone, but it’s just a normal, light stone right now. A cat appears on the windowsill and tells him (now Hoshino can talk to cats) to wait until It comes and kill it. Then he can close the stone. What? But he waits, and eventually a white, slug-like thing crawls out of Nakata’s corpse. No limbs or face. Hoshino does battle with it, and finally drops the stone on it, killing it. Then the stone is heavy, and he can wrestle with it and flip it, closing the entrance.
He leaves the cops to claim Nakata’s body, but says that he’ll always carry a part of Nakata with him – he’s been changed.
So, what’s the relationship between the two halves of the book? There’s a lot of talk early on about dreams, and Oshima even hits Kafka with the Yeats quote that “in dreams begins responsibility,” so for the longest time the reader may be suspecting that the Nakata storyline is just Kafka’s dream. But that’s never confirmed. It seems more likely, on balance, that the Rokujo theory Oshima later advances is what’s really going on. Late in the book Nakata confesses to feeling empty, like a vacant house that just anybody can move into, and this seems to suggest that he’s an open conduit for possession, easily moved by, say, Kafka’s wandering spirit to do what Kafka wants to do in the flesh but won’t or can’t. And then what Saeki, who clearly has been waiting for thirty years for death to claim her, can’t or won’t do for herself. Why Nakata can do this – why he has to be able to do this – what such a figure is doing in this book – can only be explained by adopting an interpretation of the rest of the book, a theory as to what it all means.
So what does it all mean? Murakami spent the second half of the ‘90s developing a social consciousness, addressing problems facing contemporary Japan. Underground dealt with the sarin attacks, while All God’s Children dealt with the Kobe earthquake. Sputnik seemed a blessed respite from this, but remember that at the end of it, K was confronting a troubled schoolboy. In fact there was huge anxiety in Japan at the turn of the millennium about violence, rebellion, and delinquency among teenagers – a sense that Japanese youth were in crisis. I think Kafka on the Shore works best if we read it as Murakami’s attempt to address this problem.
Kafka is, after all, the quintessential troubled teenager. A runaway. Violent tendencies – he’s gotten in trouble in school for it. A dropout. An extreme introvert – he speaks mostly in monosyllables throughout the book. It’s almost as if Murakami is setting out the Typical Teen of Today (with some trademark Murakami flourishes that set him apart – the kid can whistle both John Coltrane’s and McCoy Tyner’s solos in “My Favorite Things”), and then imagining a surreal story that could explain why he is the way he is.
What Murakami imagines is first of all the typical, prototypical, archtypical Oedipal conflict. That is, Murakami’s taking Freud’s description of the boy’s psychological maturation and making explicit what Freud had taken from explicit into implicit. Freud had taken myth and read it as allegory of psychology; Murakami is taking that psychology and turning it back into myth.
But with the twist that it seems to be the case that Kafka’s own father is begging, and at some level perhaps forcing, Kafka to do all this. Like Oedipus, Kafka is unable to avoid doing that which he most fears doing, but in Murakami’s case there’s an implication that this inevitability may not be a matter of universal psychological truth, or at least not just that, but also a specific case of the father living out his dreams through the son. In a sense, Kafka is a minor player in the epic love triangle of his father, Saeki, and Komura, and Kafka is being forced to act according to a script that his father wrote (and later one that Saeki wrote), not out of any desire that had anything to do with Kafka himself, but out of an obsession with personal grief. Kafka is just a way for his father to express himself, and then for Saeki to express herself.
Taken on that level, the book can be seen as an indictment of parents – of an adult society that holds kids hostage to its own neuroses and traumas. Kids don’t have autonomy: if they’re screwed up, it’s because adults screwed them up. And adults screwed them up by being too obsessed with their own lives, and not paying enough attention to their kids. Seems to be the message.
Of course Murakami’s critique is broader than that. Nakata sees to that. His retardation makes him particularly susceptible to other people’s scripts – he even says at one point that he just does what people tell him to do. Since his condition stems from childhood, and from the actions of an adult, he can be seen as furthering the book’s vision of adult delinquency damaging children. But he’s in his sixties during the story: he also represents, in extreme fashion, how childhood traumas continue to script our behavior as adults. More generally, he suggests that none of us has complete autonomy even as adults: we’re all acting out scripts written for us by others.
Many characters voice this anxiety: Nakata, Kafka himself at numerous points, and Hoshino all express a feeling that they’re hollow, not really in control of their actions. Agency is a major issue in this book: is Kafka responsible for his father’s death? For sleeping with his mother? With his sister? On the one hand are a host of mitigating circumstances – his father seems to have wanted to die, and he may have been an abusive alcoholic anyway (this may be what his appearance to Nakata as Johnnie Walker means), and besides, Kafka can’t really have astrally traveled, can he? Meanwhile Saeki may not even be his mother, and besides, she’s a 50-something woman molesting a 15-year-old boy – no court would convict him of anything.
The specter of doing what we would not do, or don’t know we want to do, is one way in which agency is questioned in this book. Another way is the insistent confounding of layers of reality: are Nakata and Kafka even in the same world? They never meet. What about the dream in which Kafka sleeps with his sister? What about the afterworld where he meets both Saekis? What about Saeki’s somnambulent memory-life as an adult? What about astral projection? How can you be responsible for something if you don’t even know if it really happened? Oshima and Kafka banter repeatedly about metaphor, allegory, various kinds of semiotic devices, and of course the central crime of the book is almost inconceivable as anything but allegory – are you responsible for killing the father if you only do it symbolically? “In dreams begins responsibility” – but what does that really mean?
And yet, Kafka is besieged by guilt and anxiety. This is the truth of the novel: reality is so multilayered, and agency is so tenuous, that we may not be in any meaningful way responsible for our actions – and yet we feel guilt, and that carries with it its own responsibility. If perception is a kind of dream, or dreaming a kind of perception, then perhaps responsibility either perceived or dreamed has its own reality?
On an intellectual level, this is a rich book. The themes and ideas are very carefully layered and worked out, and while they clearly arise from Murakami’s previous concerns with layers of consciousness they’re also an advance on them. I also find the book to be one of his most ambitious on a narrative level – he dares more surrealism, more loose ends, more narrative experimentation, than ever before. It’s probably his biggest departure from his previous norms since Norwegian Wood.
However. I find the book deeply flawed as well. I think – I want to think – that the flaws come from too much of a determination to experiment, to depart from his comfort zone.
I think the character of Kafka just doesn’t work. In many, many ways he talks to the reader like another of Murakami’s typical I characters, but Murakami is desperately trying to distinguish him, and to make him seem like a fifteen-year-old, so he doesn't allow Kafka to interact with others like a typical I would. The result is a very, very awkward mix of the precocious and the jejune. Well, that’s what 15 is like, but in this case it doesn’t come across as a realistic mix. There’s a huge amount of Holden Caulfield in all of his previous I-characters, and it would have been natural to make Kafka that way, and so maybe Murakami’s desperate to avoid that. But Murakami can do that. What he can’t do, at least on the evidence of this book, is to write convincingly from the point of view of a non-sarcastic, non-disillusioned 15-year-old. His narration is too eloquent, and forms too drastic a contrast with Kafka’s speech and actions.
This throws a monkey-wrench into any dialogue that Kafka’s involved in, and he’s involved in a lot of dialogue. Thus what is normally a highlight of any Murakami book is not that here. In fact, there are long stretches of conversation between Kafka and Oshima that are simply excruciating to read. Every note is a clam. This is exacerbated by the fact that Murakami makes Oshima an insufferable know-it-all, explaining to Kafka and to the reader every single one of Murakami’s allusions.
Oshima’s function as the author’s mouthpiece highlights another flaw in the book. Perhaps because Murakami is writing about kids and may be hoping that some young readers will pick up the book, he seems determined to make sure that his readers get all his references and all his literary/mythical influences this time around. In, for example, “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” he was willing to let Froggy mention Dostoevsky without any particular anxiety about whether his readers understood the reference – in fact, he makes Katagiri sheepishly ignorant of Dostoevsky, allowing us to identify with him if we choose. But here, he gives us Oshima to point out what he’s doing. Even worse, he seems determined in all his references to elevate his readers’ tastes: when Hoshino, as a result of hanging out with the spiritually pure Nakata, undergoes an intellectual/spiritual awakening of his own, it takes the form of learning to appreciate Beethoven and Truffaut. Kafka himself listens to Prince and Radiohead, but Oshima only listens to classical. Murakami’s always been prodigal with his references, but they’ve always mixed high and low culture freely, just as his writing itself does. Here he’s pedantic.
The Nakata half of the book fares a little better. Nakata himself may be consistently cringe-inducing (he comes dangerously close to pulling off what Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder called “full retard”), but perhaps because he’s narrated in the third person he at least comes off as relatively believable. Meanwhile, Hoshino, despite his Beethoven epiphany, is actually a pretty entertaining character – a nicely realized sketch of an underachieving but likeable working-class guy, with some reasonably funny lines.
I like ambitious failures, and so I have to respect what Murakami’s trying to do with this book. He’s really trying to stretch himself both as a thinker and as a witer. But I have to say that while I find the ideas engaging and exciting, as a reading experience I find this to be his first real failure.