Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Review of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the ShoreI bought this book in the large Oxfam store in Manchester. I’d been thinking of buying something by him for a while and had nearly done South of the Border, West of the Sun with a reading group in London. But then I left for Derbyshire and then Korea. As you can tell from the picture on the left (assuming I remembered to insert it), there’s a cat on the front cover; I love cats, so normally I would have taken this as an auspicious sign, an extra little reason to buy it. Except that I don’t remember noticing it at all when I bought the book.

So instead, I could take it as a retrospective sign. Or, to put it another way: this book is so good, it even has a picture of a cat on the cover.

There are two main characters – Kafka Tamura and Mr Nakata. Their stories begin disparately, with little clue as to how they go together, but through the course of the book, they move closer and kind of circle each other, interacting only indirectly.

Kafka is a 15 year olf boy running away from home, accompanied only by a mysterious alter-ego, the boy named Crow. Kafka’s chapters are written in first person perspective. And occasionally second … and occasionally in boldface, too. These techniques give a heightened sense of mystery to the narrative and could easily have been dispensed with, I feel – but I liked them.

Nakata’s story begins during the war and this pre-narrative period is recounted in US military intelligence reports and interviews from 1946. Something odd happened to the young Nakata, and since that time he’s been illiterate and uncomprehending of the complexities of the modern world. But he can talk to cats – so, in the present day, he makes a modest living finding missing cats by going up to random moggies, showing them a picture and saying, basically, ‘Have you seen this cat?’

The ersatz military documents (which were presented in a different font) were a fascinating read, but they concluded all too soon. Mind you, the whole novel was a fascinating read. The writing is rarely flowery or elaborate, and possesses a kind of quiet intensity. The kind of quality you might call strangely compelling.

I choose books by new authors almost exclusively on the basis that I’m aware that they’re quite popular (or at least that they’ve published a few books, and they look interesting), not really knowing anything about their work. So, while I opened Kafka on the Shore with few expectations, one of them, at an almost unconscious level, was that it would be realistic fiction. As a fantasist (take that how you will) I was pleasantly surprised to find this book to be magical realist.

Some aspects of this magical realism were intriguing – Kafka’s relationship with people from some years before his birth, and his father’s dark prophecy about him. Some were delightful – Nakata’s conversations with cats (one of the most memorable scenes has Nakata asking a brown stripy cat about a missing feline and receiving incomprehesible answers about tuna. The situation is rescued by an urbane and eloquent Siamese called Mimi (she explains that she’s named after the character in La Bohème)). Some aspects were a little odd – two characters take the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders. This latter is the least satisfactory as it represents a kind of deus ex machina.

I have to wonder how much this book succeeds despite the translation. There’s an odd mix of British and American varieties of English, like it was translated by an American, but only partially converted by a British editor. There’s also an uneven use of punctuation in abbreviations: ‘info’ has a full stop, making it look at first like the end of a sentence, but ‘Mr’ lacks one.

In conclusion, then, Kafka on the Shore is a highly readable, intriguing, generally excellent book that takes as its themes youth and age, the past and the present.

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