After hearing so much about Haruki Murakami as one of the most well-known representative of my favorite genre of magic realism, and as he is also one of the authors my favorite writer David Mitchell claims as a major influence, it was about time I read one of Murakami’s novels. Kafka on the Shore is also one of Murakami’s best-known novels. I got it as a present from a person whose opinion I highly value, so I was pretty excited to read it. Well, it was an interesting read. I have a lot to say about it. I partly enjoyed it, partly I was disappointed. Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I had heard too much about how great a writer Murakami is. Maybe the translation makes it less smooth a read.
If this had been the first novel of the genre, I might have been more impressed. It is, simply said, a novel about a 15 year old run-away, the boy Kafka, who has several, partly super-natural, and certainly fateful encounters on the way. There are nice parts about it. I really enjoyed the character of the weird, dumb, old Nakata (who is not so dumb actually), and in particular his conversations with cats. That’s, I think, what I liked the most. Much of the rest I thought is too artificial, too constructed. The dialogues are overloaded with meaning. No real people have conversations like that. The character of Oshima I liked the least: he understands everything, has something philosophical to say about everything, is quasi-enlightened, super cool, handsome, and an amazing driver (Murakami mentions at least 10 times how smoothly he switches gears). After 600 pages, I still can’t imagine Oshima. He did not feel like a person. Many of the characters did not feel like persons. Sakura, Kafka’s sister-friend-lover, maybe, did, and Nakata of course. I got the feeling that Murakami lets the characters say what he thinks, and he always had the same voice. Everyone agreed on stuff. Murakami’s voice is the only voice in the book. Ms. Saeki, the mysterious beauty, simultaneously young and old, spreads the same wisdom as Kafka, Oshima, and the truck driver.
Another point is that many plots are picked up, but many are not finished. They seem to fulfill no function in the novel, they do not add anything, no meaning, no atmosphere, no background, they appear random. The story with the unconscious kids on the hill starts as a continuous plot for a big part of the book, but then it simply disappears, and remains unconnected with the rest of the book, does not explain anything, and is also not explained. The last part of it is a new version of the same incident, and basically the female teacher’s confession about sex, blood, violence, and menstruation, which however does not make any difference for the story. The entrance stone, a central part of the plot that ties several plots together, is not set in any context. We do not know anything about it. Nakata’s thin shadow, which should have a counter-part, never finds it counter-part. Nakata’s secret connection with Kafka is not explained. Kafka’s connection with Ms. Saeki is not explained. Oshima’s connection with Ms Saeki is not explained. Nakata’s connection with Kafka’s father is not explained. While I appreciate books that do not make every single piece of the puzzle explicit, this one feels like the author himself had no clue. It feels unfinished.
And a last point of criticism is the role of women in the book. Three women have major appearances in the book: the school teacher with the unconscious kids, Ms. Saeki, and Sakura. All are important characters, but all appear in a sexual framework. The teacher with her erotic and menstrual confession, and Ms Saeki and Sakura as explicit sexual objects. The male characters are in the centre, they have depth, they have work to do. They make the decisions. Oshima decides what is best for Ms. Saeki, namely not seeing Kafka again, without consulting her. The female characters are sexy, beautiful, mysterious, and they get our heroes going. The standard side roles are men, the characters that are developed are men, the functional roles are filled by men. Oshima as a trans-gender person is an interesting exception, but he is pretty much presented as male, in look, speech, and habitus, and in disagreeing with the ‘annoying feminists’. The annoying feminists top it off: Murakami describes a scene where a pair of annoying feminists come in the library and criticize its style of categorization and the toilets as neglecting women’s interest. The scene does not do anything for the plot, apart from depicting feminists in a ridiculous way, who stereotypically complain about details in shrill voices with no real arguments. All in all, it feels like women for Murakami, as represented in this novel, are either mysterious, beautiful, sexy, slutty, and slept with; or complaining and annoying.
To sum it up: I enjoyed reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’. It was exciting, had interesting plot twists, some unusual ideas, and a nice mix of magic and realism. It is however not very skillfully written, feels like there is no background story, and the characters are shallow.