Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the ShoreKafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have no idea whether I liked or hated this book. I had a visceral reaction to a lot of the elements within it, though I recognize the craft and melding of cultures that went into its production.

The story is about a fifteen-year-old boy in Japan who runs away from home. He spends most of his time in a library, staffed by a young man named Oshima, and owned by Miss Saeki. Meanwhile, Satoru Nakata, who talks to cats, kills a man calling himself Johnny Walker, who's been killing cats and eating their hearts. He, too, flees to where the boy has gone, fulfilling a quest that will restore his soul to what it once was.

The book has many dream-like elements. Considering how much time Nakata spends asleep, I was ready to believe most of Kafka's happenings were dreamt by Nakata. But, these events occur even when Nakata is awake.

It's also packed full of literary references. The boy calls himself Kafka, and the story certainly contains a lot of the surreality that author is known for. He and Oshima discuss several Japanese authors and poets. The book even seems, at times, to be a reaction to a book Kafka openly admires, contradicting the premise he praises. Kafka has also been cursed to reenact Oedipus's story, though he escapes his final fate, luckily.

Yes, that means that he sleeps with his mother. He also rapes his adopted sister. Even if it only happens in a dream, he chooses to go ahead with it even when she calls it what it is. It's as pleasant to read as you can imagine.

The book also has underpinnings in classical music and philosophy. Oshima likes to listen to a flawed piece, to see how various performers make up for it. Hoshino, who takes Nakata where he needs to go, gains an appreciation for classical music in his wanderings. As for philosophy, Oshima can't seem to speak more than three sentences without bringing up a philosophical debate.

Oshima, himself, is a fascinating character. He helps guide Kafka, and hides him from a police search. He seems wise beyond his years, and remarkably unruffled. Nothing Kafka tells him seems to surprise Oshima. But then, Oshima has hidden depths of his own. I thought that aspect was handled well, for the most part, though I would've liked to have seen it revealed without having to introduce straw feminists into the plot. I was frustrated beyond words by the assertion that men coming before women is as immutable as the order of the alphabet, and outright enraged by the statement that having no separate ladies' room isn't a problem because no one has complained. (If the library only had one bathroom in all, I rescind my outrage. But the woman who brings it up has a point that it can make women feel threatened, especially if the bathrooms are in a tucked-away corner of the library.) The eventual dismissal of all of the woman's points is inevitable, but no less irritating.

For all the book's unfathomable depth, though, the pacing could drive a person up the wall. Conversations only serve to further confuse the point. Often half of the dialogue was taken up with another character rephrasing what the first said, prefaced with, "So you're saying . . ." If these clarified anything, they would've been far less frustrating. But they mostly served to distract from the aspects of the conversation that might've illuminated the reader.

Reading Kafka on the Shore is like eating a series of increasingly disgusting insects, prepared and seasoned to taste like one's favorite dishes. It takes a lot of skill to pull off, but it's difficult to avoid that "blech" reflex. Don't expect a neat ending with all questions answered. The basic plot is wrapped up, but many of the mysteries are left as they are.

I listened to this book on audio. It's about 30 hours of listening in all, which is a big chunk of time. But the story is read by several narrators, which helps to differentiate the sections and perspectives. The British accents and pronunciations took some getting used to, but it did serve as a constant reminder that this is not an American novel.


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