BY BAY COLT
“It’s hard to tell the difference between sea and sky, between voyager and sea. Between reality and the workings of the heart.”
Published in 2002 by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore is a brilliant and intriguing novel that is certain to captivate from the very first sentence. The plot primarily follows two central characters, Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata, with extensive cameos from side characters peppered throughout. Running along two parallel storylines, the odd numbered chapters tell the tale of fifteen-year-old Kafka as he runs away from his Tokyo home to escape his abusive father and the Oedipal prophecy he’s been cursed with. The even numbered chapters follow Nakata, a man in his sixties who suffered from an accident in his childhood that left him with amnesia, unable to read, write, or retain information long-term, who now lives a simple life earning money for finding people’s lost cats.
Though the plot can be bewildering and meandering at times, Murakami’s trademark voice utilizes the perfect blend of mundanity, magical realism, pop culture, and profound philosophy to engage and interest the reader throughout. Despite not understanding where the story is heading for the majority of the book, there is never a moment of boredom. The writing style, too, is a perfect blend of Japanese and Western storytelling conventions: taking specific elements from both Kishōtenketsu and the Hero’s Journey to create a simultaneously peaceful and tumultuous narrative that excellently encapsulates the complex themes of identity and mind/body dualism. Contributing to this, each alternating chapter tells itself with a different verb tense: Kafka’s chapters are in first person present tense and Nakata’s are in third person past tense. Though this may seem confusing, it is mitigated by how profoundly different every character is from one another, making each chapter a clean shift in perspective.
The uniqueness of the characters is another aspect that stands out in this book. Each character is well-rounded, intriguing, and vividly portrayed, individuality seeping from every line. Though some are profoundly more eccentric than others, no single character can be considered the most complex. Kafka, for instance, is characterized by his constant struggle between himself, his past, and the world, making each of his chapters emotionally turbulent and sometimes troubling; in contrast, Nakata is perfectly at ease with his place in the world, so his chapters are calm and contain little to no internal conflict, but rather external conflict inflicted upon him.
The conflict in this book may feel unusual to those only familiar with Western storytelling. There is no single antagonist or consistent obstacle for every character to band together to face; the conflict is singular, sparse, and sometimes completely internal, scarcely being spoken aloud. There is only one true antagonist who actively challenges a main character in some way, but he is defeated within a chapter. All other conflicts center around the central theme of reconciliation with oneself—the past, present, and future are haunting the characters, and they must take responsibility for each aspect of it along the way, whether this means acknowledging the horrendous pain of a past loss or actively taking the reins of a future prophecy and enacting it with purpose.
This book is a circular narrative, meaning the characters end up, in one way or another, circling back to where they began at the start of the story. In Western storytelling, this type of narrative is often done poorly with an utter lack of development, but Murakami makes it work by having the characters end up physically where they began, while having still been profoundly altered by the journey they’ve undertaken.
Kafka on the Shore is a singularly fascinating and enthralling story, vividly metaphysical, excruciatingly intimate, and at times bewilderingly philosophical. The unique characters, worldbuilding, and themes, all told in Murakami’s distinctive style, combine in a thought-provoking and entertaining journey that will have both Western and non-Western audiences invested in every word.