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Strangely Familiar
By Margaret Black

Kafka on the Shore

By Haruki Murakami.

Alfred A. Knopf, 436 pages, $25.95

You might say that Haruki Murakami is the intellectual reader’s manga author. Like Japanese comics, his works are filled with a strange mixture of Japanese and Western cultural influences where cool and often alienated, dislocated characters are nonetheless unabashedly romantic or become obsessively absorbed in daunting spiritual quests in settings that mix realism and the fantastic, high and low culture, ghosts, UFOs, you name it.

For many readers, Murakami needs no introduction. He’s been widely popular, with a devoted cult of fans, ever since he burst on the American scene in 1989 with The Wild Sheep Chase. That book was followed by an almost annual production of novels, of which The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and Sputnik Sweetheart are probably the best known. He has two short-story collections, The Elephant Vanishes and After the Quake, as well as the nonfiction Underground, on how the Japanese reacted to the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway by the nutty Aum Shinrikyo cult. Kafka on the Shore, Murakami’s latest novel, covers familiar territory with familiar characters, but it is also one of his most poignant (and accessible) books.

As he often does, Murakami slowly braids together a two-stranded plot. The first story follows 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from his sinister sculptor father in Tokyo to the southern island of Shikoku, where he is half- looking for and half-hoping to avoid his mother and sister, who fled a decade earlier. Kafka’s confusion arises from the oedipal curse his father has pronounced, insisting that Kafka will murder him and sleep with his mother and sister. After making friends with a feisty young woman on the bus to Shikoku, Kafka eventually holes up in an elegant private library, where he becomes friends with the sexually ambiguous, hemophiliac assistant and the incredibly beautiful, but sadly austere older librarian, Miss Saeki.

The second story revolves around Nakata, an utterly enchanting 60-year-old who was made simpleminded as a child during an encounter with a UFO. Nakata has, however, the capacity to talk with cats, and these conversations alone are worth the price of the book. When Nakata is ostensibly forced to flee Tokyo because of a murder—actually he is on a quest that he understands only as he proceeds—he comes under the wing of a hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold trucker named Hoshino, who turns into a wisecracking sidekick/disciple to Nakata’s holy fool. The quest—to find, open, and then close again an “entrance stone”—brings Nakata and Hoshino to the island of Shikoku as well.

Actual, accurately rendered reality—of bus stations, truck stops, tacky commercial developments—is filled with credible individuals talking on cell phones, buying groceries, or pumping gas. Murakami also creates magnificently real primal forest and empty seascapes. But intermixed are metaphysical otherworlds (the other side of the entrance stone, for instance) and non-being “concepts” such as one who inhabits the body of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders. Sardines and leeches rain from the sky, and there’s the whole UFO thing, reported via an X Files-type investigation conducted by the American military during the occupation. Unlike the author’s earlier use of the surreal, however, the spirits and actions committed through dreams in Kafka on the Shore openly relate to Japanese tradition. The characters even quote an episode of murder by spirit from the 11th-century Tale of Genji. When elderly Nakata and the trucker get possession of the entrance stone, it is both actual and metaphorical, and it is also, in a totally Japanese fashion, possessed of a spirit which with Nakata, at least, establishes some communication.

Author Murakami still doses readers with spoonfuls of medicinal philosophy, but here you care enough about the characters to take it as part of their nature to talk that way. He even introduces some satirical humor, as when a pair of activists denounce the antifeminist nature of the library or when the trucker Hoshino can’t believe that America ever occupied Japan. The author continues to create a Japan where Plato, Hegel, and Freud dominate the conversation of ideas, where Hoshino falls in love with Beethoven and Haydn, and where Kafka prefers The Arabian Nights to Japanese classics. And yet: Underneath everything in this novel is a very Japanese world, filled with Japanese spirits, Japanese characters, and a very Japanese philosophy of life.

Certain things are always missing from Murakami’s novels, and they are in Kafka as well. No central figure ever grows up enough to have children and become complex in the ways that having children forces complexity on life. Older people in Murakami, especially parents and grandparents, are seen from a child’s point of view, even though that child is adult. The older characters may be good or evil, but how they act and what they feel is always presented as a child would experience it, and not a very old child at that. As a consequence, a Murakami novel may solve the mystery, achieve the quest, and even provide enlightenment, but what will happen to the hero as he proceeds into the future is always beyond imagining.

One last thing, and probably the most important explanation for the popularity of Murakami novels in general and Kafka on the Shore in particular: Murakami constantly moves the action forward. In addition, his stories are so bizarre, so out of ordinary reading experience, that even though you can often figure out mysteries about the characters pretty quickly, the author nonetheless keeps you constantly guessing what can possibly happen next. It is an engrossing read.

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