Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review of Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore"

One of the reasons many fans of science fiction favor Star Wars over Star Trek is the overt spirituality found in the story. There is the force, which holds a mysterious presence over all the jedi do, and manages to hold the audience in rapture as its sages explain its workings. Obi Wan teaches Luke how to use a light saber, and as an example of the force, tells him to lower the blast shield so he can’t see his opponent and must feel his way in the fight.
Since humanity began telling stories, the world of fairies, genii, gods, and otherworldly heroes have walked with us to impress and leave in their wake mystery and awe over what they take for granted as everyday life. I’ve found that in South American and Asian literature the world of fairies and creatures we can only imagine what strange creatures the characters describes are, and amazingly show themselves in stories that would otherwise seem ordinary. Visions of the future in dreams, visits from dead relatives, crossing the boundary between the living and the dead, all are examples these authors seem comfortable telling. This is one of them.
Murakami tells the story of Kafka, the fifteen year old who never knew his sister or mother and despises his father, forcing him to leave home with a hefty bit of cash and go in search of something he couldn’t identify at the time. He goes to an anonymous town, meets a girl a few years older than himself, has a sexual encounter with her, and leaves to find himself living at a library owned by an older mysterious woman he is later attracted to. The story is charged with human sexuality and in places becomes nearly gratuitous in the description of what happens.

If it sounds a lot like the story of Oedipus, then you are right. It is the story of Oedipus told in modern day Japan with an overlay of Japanese culture and a fluid transition between what is real and unreal, life and death, and what is natural and supernatural. Like much of the animation coming from Japan, two worlds mix and the reader floats back and forth until each is indistinguishable. Anime seems obsessed with the relationship of the spiritual world to the digital one and how they two relate to each other in a way that can make sense with what came before.

What Murakami does well is his telling of the world of spirits where time stops and people are at the mercy of those who are familiar with the otherwise unfamiliar. He incorporates mystery into his story where it is obvious that a door to another world has been opened, and all the reader can do is stand and wonder along with the characters. The explanations of this other world are lacking, which works in the story to make it even more appealing and interesting. The story moves nicely, and each chapter ends with the reader wanting to know what happens next. Wonderful pairings occur. One is reminiscent of the pair in the movie “Rainman” where one is dependent on the other to survive in the world and seems to belong to another place, yet has so much to teach the person who seems wise to all around. Characters are strong and vivid in the story, and when they meet it is a task to imagine what the two would say to one another.
The story, however, lacks in contrast to what happens with Kafka and conclusions the story comes to in the end. The dialogue in the more dramatic parts is overly sentimental and predictable, which doesn’t fit well with the wonderfully vivid and interesting descriptions of what happens to its characters.

Overall, it is a compelling read with interesting characters that are easily known. Certain conversations serve as an entrance to the mysterious world created, while others seem to serve as filler where characters can’t seem to transcend the ordinariness of everyday interaction. He does well with showing the extraordinary in the extraordinary, but the extraordinary in the ordinary is still a mystery.

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