Kill me or the cat gets it
When the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s bestselling ‘A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ transformed one of Japan’s best-kept literary secrets into the world’s best-known living Japanese novelist, this reviewer’s acquaintances neatly subdivided themselves into three groups: besotted devotees (one British friend went so far as to name his newborn son “Haruki”); critical admirers; and people who came out in a nasty rash. ‘Kafka on the Shore’, published in the old country in 2002 and now translated into English by Phillip Gabriel, shares many common denominators with its wind-up predecessor, but that triad of readers’ reactions looks set for a reshuffle.
The plot is a slow-ravelling two-strander. In the first strand, 15-year-old Kafka Tamura (we never learn his real name) runs away from Tokyo and his sculptor-father who kills cats to make flutes from their souls. Kafka winds up in the provincial city of Takamatsu on the smallest of Japan’s main islands, Shikoku. Here the cross-gender librarian of a private library, Oshima, and its enigmatic owner, Mrs Saeki, provide the mature-beyond-his-years runaway with employment and a roof. The second strand begins as an X-File recorded by American Occupation forces, and narrates how a group of wartime evacuees foraging for food in the Shikoku mountains glimpsed a possible UFO before losing consciousness for several hours. All subsequently recovered, except for one boy, Nakata, who remained in a coma for some weeks before waking up, as he says, “not very bright”, but with the power to talk to cats.
Five decades later, in the course of his job as a finder of strayed household felines, Nakata is coerced by Kafka’s father (posing as “Jack Daniels”) into stabbing him to death in a “kill me or the cats get it” scene. Back in strand one, Kafka falls in love with the 15-year-old ghost of Mrs Saeki and begins an affair with his employer Mrs Saeki, in reality old enough to be his mother, whom she may well be. To evade the investigation into his father’s death, Kafka goes to earth in Oshima’s mountain hut. In the depths of the surrounding forests he finds the entrance to a semi-real hinterworld. Meanwhile Nakata, whose attempt to turn himself in for murder is dismissed as simple dementia, follows a psychic urge westwards in the company of a drop-out truck driver, Hoshino, all the way to Takamatsu, Shikoku. Here the novel’s two strands braid themselves together.
Sort of. Reviewers cultivate the habit of leaving the last couple of chapters under a polite shroud, but giving away the ending of Kafka on the Beach would be a tall order because not even the author does that. Unless I am being particularly dim-witted, loose ends remain far looser than in any Murakami novel to date. The wartime X-File is revisited only once, the UFO is never explained, and the spectral village between the worlds serves little discernible function, beyond being a place for Kafka to escape to and then escape from. The mythic motifs also remain frustratingly shady. Is Mrs Saeki really Kafka’s mother? (The answer, given to Kafka, is “you know the answer”) Is Sakura, a fellow passenger Kafka meets early in the novel and “rapes” in a dream later on, really his sister? Did Kafka actually kill his own father in another dream using Nakata as an unconscious proxy? Is the Boy Named Crow, Kafka’s occasional companion, Kafka’s familiar, his superego, or his what? Is a giant evil slug crawling across a Takamatsu apartment an incarnation of Kafka’s father trying to enter the netherworld? For Murakami devotees, this fantasy’s loose ends will tantalise; to his admirers, they may invite flummoxed interpretation; but for the unconvinced, they will just dangle, rather ropily.
Detractors may also point to elements in ‘Kafka on the Shore’ which repeat themselves throughout Murakami’s work with enough regularity to smack of a checklist: portals into Lynchian inbetweenworlds; cool-as-Bogart semi-orphaned teenagers who think and have sex more how male middle-aged writers wished they had thought and had sex when they were teenagers than actual flesh-and-blood teenagers tend to; protagonists on quests for lost women; sexually frank assistants; hyperlinks to war-time paranormal experiences; random citizens who possess a more intimate knowledge of jazz, whiskey, coffee and chamber music than market research in Shinjuku would ever turn up. The degree of Americanisation in the translation is rather sobering. Non-Americophones may have to swallow “Jeez Louise!” under Majority Rules, but surely literate North Americans can handle Japanese characters buying and thinking in their own currency rather than dollars and bucks, as here. The dialogue, in this translation at least, sometimes betrays a homogeneity of tone among the cast. During donnish conversations on symbology, the speech-markers “Oshima says”, “Mrs Saeki says” and “I (Kafka) say” are pretty much interchangeable. Finally, there is a question about whether wearing badges of the Oedipus myth is, strictly, “exploring mythic and contemporary taboos — patricide, mother-love, sister-love” like it says on the wrapper. But perish the day when novelists must write to pacify detractors. Murakami’s style is rarely less than seductive and I read ‘Kafka on the Shore’ in one non-stop feeding frenzy. Initially!