A Boy Called Kafka

Kafka on the Shore was originally published in 2002. It is Haruki Murakami’s tenth novel.

The odd-numbered chapters of this novel tell the story of a 15-year-old boy who runs away from home. It wasn’t an impulsive act. It was something he’d been planning for years, with the help of a boy called Crow. The runaway boy chooses the city of Takamatsu, where the climate is warm, and where no one would think to look for him. He takes on the alias Kafka Tamura. He finds shelter in a private library, open to anyone who wants to come in and read, owned by patrons of the arts. The head librarian, Miss Saeki, was briefly famous for recording one hit song, named Kafka on the Shore. Kafka Tamura’s story is told in the first-person.

The even-numbered chapters begin with the transcript of a declassified document from U.S. Army Intelligence. It tells of a 1944 incident in Japanese town (whose name has been deleted from the records). An object, initially thought to be an American B-29, appeared in the sky, and a group of sixteen school children, out on a field trip to pick mushrooms, all collapse, unconscious, leaving only the teacher awake. The story jumps forward with the story of one of those school children, now sixty years old. His name is Mr. Nakata. Before the incident in 1944, he was a good student, with excellent grades. Now, Mr. Nakata describes himself as “not very bright”. The incident wiped his memory. He can no longer read or write. He has difficulty understanding things like money or geography. The incident also gave him the ability to communicate with cats. He uses that ability to earn a little extra money by finding lost cats for people. Mr. Nakata’s story is told in the third-person.

This novel is often categorized as “magic realism” – something I had previously known only as a style used by Gabriel García Máquez, and some other Central and South American authors. Some odd things happen in an otherwise realistic setting. In Kafka on the Shore (both the novel and the song), fish rain down from the sky. The ghost of a living person walks the earth. A character named Johnnie Walker, who dresses just like the guy on the whiskey bottle, but isn’t the Johnnie Walker, steals cats’ souls. There’s a pimp named Colonel Sanders, who dresses just like the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and may (or may not) be the Colonel Sanders.

Kafka on the Shore is a huge and complex novel. It contains several mysteries, many clues, and no obvious answers. I don’t know what this book is about, exactly, but I enjoyed the ride.

Along the way, we meet Oshima, a young transgender gay man, with hemophilia, who runs the library, and befriends Kafka. There’s Hoshino, a truck driver, who befriends Mr. Nakata and risks a lot to help Nakata find whatever it is he’s looking for. There’s Sakura, a girl Kafka meets on a bus, who doesn’t seem to have a large role in the story, yet seems important to the plot.

It’s a love story.

It’s a coming-of-age story.

It is a quest.

There are some disturbing scenes in this book. There is also beauty.

I loved this book – not as much as 1Q84 or Norwegian Wood – but it kept me a Muakami fan.

Also, here’s a jazz cover of Miss Saeki’s hit song:

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