It is not normal for leeches to rain down from the sky onto a parking lot on the highway. Nor is it normal for slick, black snow to fall onto the shoulders of some young thugs spoiling for a fight and remain stuck to their skin. It isn’t normal for an entire class to lose consciousness while out on a school trip in the mountains and that all the children recover, while one child remains in a coma for weeks. And it is not normal for an old man to be able to speak with cats.
His latest novel, 1Q84, tops the bestseller lists in both the East and the West. Therefore, no introductions are necessary for Murakami, the reserved and inscrutable writer whom everyone is already talking about; instead, let’s dive straight into Kafka on the Shore.
A 15-year-old boy who seems much older than his years and an elderly man who is as naïve as a child leave Tokyo to embark on a journey which eventually leads them to cross paths. We feel that their destinies are linked to one another, but we don’t know how. The boy, Kafka Tamura, runs away in an attempt to escape from the terrible prophecy made by his father: “Someday you will murder your father and be with your mother and sister.” So he runs away from home and finds shelter in a small village library far away. The old man, a somewhat prophetic screwball, doesn’t know how to read or write; on the plus side, however, he has the ability to speak with cats.
One has the feeling that this novel is an amalgam of all narrative motifs. While trying to escape an Oedipal myth, Kafka Tamura gets lost in the woods like Tom Thumb. Murakami doesn’t give a hoot about repeating the Oedipus story. Indeed, he unabashedly copies it. Then, the Tom Thumb fable mingles with that of the Japanese soldiers who had been hiding in the woods before being found after many years and who think they are still in World War II. And now fable intermingles with news.
The story also mirrors Picnic at Hanging Rock, where contact with nature transforms into a chilling and mysterious event. In Australia in 1900, a group of girls from an upper class private boarding school travel to Hanging Rock in the mountains for a picnic. During this excursion, some of them vanish. Only one girl returns, but has no memory at all of what has happened. Similarly, the pupils on Murakami’s school excursion to the mountains inexplicably lose consciousness. Then all come round except Nakata, who awakens after several weeks but whose memory has been wiped clean; not only has he no recollection of what happened, but does not remember anything about his life prior to this and has lost the ability to remember anything.
Murakami balances the threshold between dreams and reality thanks to his ability to “transform the chimerical into something perfectly plausible and reasonable.” Then, at one point, we meet Johnnie Walker who seizes cats and butchers them and devours their still-beating hearts. Then, he decapitates them and puts their heads in the fridge: here we enter the realms of full-on horror!
It is a Greek tragedy as well as a family drama, a travel novel and erotic novel, a horror and a mystery, a chronicle and a fairy tale, not to mention a thriller with a good dose of the surreal thrown in which gives rise to an incredible mix of narratives. One type of narrative switches on to another and you are no longer sure what type you are reading. That which Kafka/Tom Thumb loses in the woods, beyond the road, lends itself to the genre of the book and so the sense of disorientation is even greater. In short, one feels lost among many mythologies while reading this book. And so it is in this way that this novel deals with its structure. It is a journey through genres.
Who are Kafka Tamura’s parents?
His father is a successful artist who paints labyrinths and according to his son is a hateful creature, but it is evident that the boy is going through a difficult Oedipal phase. His mother abandoned him when he was four years old, taking his sister with her. Miss Saeki, (who Kafka suspects may be his mother and with whom he is in love) is the author of a book about lightning. She has travelled throughout Japan looking for people who have been hit by lightning and interviewing them. Miss Saeki is crushed by memories of her young love and it is as though she too has survived a stroke of lightning. Young Kafka is plagued by his mother’s abandonment and relentlessly asks himself why she did it. He blames himself and believes she left because he was unworthy of her love.
In order to escape the Oedipal curse, Kafka flees to a safe distance. However, at the time of his father’s murder, the boy loses consciousness and wakes to find his hands covered in blood. He feels that he has killed his father, even though he was miles away from Tokyo. Why?
Because in the realm of dreams and metaphors there exists no distances or barriers that can block anything and everything is possible; even mackerel and sardines which rain from the sky and an old man who can predict that fish will fall from the sky.
Well before Jung and Freud cast light on the subconscious through psychoanalysis, as Murakami says in Kafka on the Shore, this was linked to the supernatural and both were enveloped in darkness. As the narrative moves into a territory with uncertain boundaries where “heads or tails” are not mutually exclusive, you ask yourself: when will this dreamer awake from this dream? When will we get back to reality? But you can’t go anywhere because “ everything in the world is a metaphor.”
What ails Kafka “is a recurring theme in Greek tragedy: Man doesn’t choose fate. Fate chooses man.” The protagonist no longer knows where the line between what path he believes he has chosen and that which has already been chosen for him has been drawn.
It seems to him as though his fate is thwarting all his choices and efforts. Then, the irony of fate as illustrated in the Sophocles play, is that “Oedipus is drawn to tragedy not because of laziness or stupidity, of which he is immune, but because of his courage and honesty”.
If Oedipus weren’t so courageous, he wouldn’t have killed his father. Maybe he would have let King Laius pass by and not get so worked up over a dead horse. It’s the fact he is such an honest and upright man that spurns him into committing the most “universal” of crimes.
“So maybe I murdered him through a dream”, Kafka wonders. “Maybe I went through some special dream circuit or something and killed him.”
“That may be what you think” answers his friend Oshima. “To you that might feel like the truth. But neither poetry nor anyone else can grill you about your poetic responsibilities. Nobody can be in two places at the same time. It is a scientific fact – Einstein and all that– and the law accepts that principle.”
No one can be in two places at the same time except, that is, in a Murakami novel. And it is not the wrongdoing itself, but rather the sense of guilt which makes you a criminal. Even if you are innocent, you cannot shake off the weight of your imaginary crime. These feelings of guilt count more than the sins themselves and if this escapes the penal code, then it matters in people’s lives. “Our responsibility begins with our imagination”: and this is poetry.
In order to redeem himself, Kafka Tamura has to pass the labyrinth test.
The protagonist is faced with contradictory advice: “Not to enter the forest because you could lose yourself and never find your way out” and “Go into the forest because only there can you find the solution to the mystery which haunts you; it is only when you enter the labyrinth and find your way out of it again that you may pass the test and become a man”. In most fairytales, it would seem that the choice not to enter the woods is the wise and prudent one, even though the protagonist always chooses to enter. Tom Thumb cannot avoid the forest as it is where his parents abandon him; and so also Kafka Tamura accepts the challenge and goes all the way in.
So, what is the moral of the story?
Murakami’s novels are always a projective test in which everyone creates their own version and their own truths. At the end of the journey, the young Kafka returns to the world of normality, but thanks to his friend Oshima he makes an important discovery:
“Perhaps most people in the world aren’t trying to be free, Kafka. They just think they are. It’s all an illusion. If they really were set free, most people would be in a real pickle. You’d better remember that. People actually prefer not being free.”
So, I wonder: Do we only enter the forest in novels and fairytales, while in real life most of us would turn on our heels and go home?