Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami: Book Review

kafka on the shore haruki murakami book reviewVintage/ Garnet Nagato
Kafka on the Shore Book Cover Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami
Fantasy, Magical Realism
Vintage International
January 3, 2006

Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.

As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

I’ve never read anything quite like Kafka on the Shore before. Haruki Murakami has a way with words that is difficult to describe. His writing style is incredibly concise but manages to convey a wealth of emotions and descriptions that capture the beauty of the world and all of its details, no matter how mundane. Kafka on the Shore is something else entirely. It takes all of Murakami’s traits as a writer and turns them upside down to create an incredibly unique tale of identity.

Kafka on the Shore takes you on a journey that is difficult and thought-provoking. Much like the contents of the book itself, Murakami has created a work that is very much a metaphor. Full of theories and concepts on life, reality, dreams, identity, knowledge, love, loss, and beauty, it pulls you along on an incredible journey of the self. While this book, and, Murakami in general, is not for everyone, it is an incredible read that challenges you at every turn of the page and it’s worth every minute of your time.

This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book

Kafka on the Shore is told from two very different perspectives, each moving toward the same outcome along a similar timeline. From the beginning, it’s very clear that emotions and concepts of identity will be explored through two very different, yet strangely connected characters.

Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old boy who has never known love or affection, has decided to run away from home. He does not remember his mother, who left without a trace with his older sister when he was just four years old. His father does not pay attention to him and they have a very strained relationship. Longing to find himself, Kafka embarks on a journey to escape the fate that has been set before him by his father. Destined to kill his father and have sex with both his mother and his sister, Kafka begins a journey that will slowly allow him to discover himself, even if it means metaphorically fulfilling the curse that has been placed upon him.

Nakata, on the other hand, is an old man with an interesting past. After an accident as a child, in which he went into a coma following a bizarre turn of events during a school outing, he woke up as an empty shell. Unable to remember anything about his past, including all of his memories and schooling, Nakata lives a life without emotion. Despite being unable to read, he gets by in life and is content with performing tasks set to him by others. Like Kafka, he has never known love. In fact, he has never had friends – at least in the real sense of the term. He can actually talk to cats, who have been his only companion following his accident. Furthermore, Nakata has a strange way of speaking and finds himself encountering strange circumstances as the events of the story unfold.

Driven by desires and mysterious forces, Kafka and Nakata experience a number of strange circumstances throughout the novel that represent transformations in identity. Not only that, but Murakami uses these circumstances to make a statement about the nature of human existence and consciousness. Everything is a metaphor because everything can be interpreted with meaning in some way or another. Human perception depends on the individual – a concept that is explored only too well through Nakata’s character. He has no way of understanding complex problems or abstract thought. Instead, he has to rely on the words of others. Despite their explanations, he is still unable to understand everything that lies outside of his realm of thought. Through Nakata, and later, Kafka, Murakami expresses the notion that everything is a metaphor – we can only perceive what we can see ourselves; in turn, our perceptions are constructed by who we are and what we know in connection to our surroundings.

Things outside you are projections of what’s inside you, and what’s inside you is a projection of what’s outside. So when you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time you’re stepping into the labyrinth inside.

Full of mysterious circumstances, including: talking cats, fish that rain from the sky and the appearance of figures of the past, along with a number of strange and whimsical characters named after popular brands, including Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, Kafka on the Shore is an unforgettable experience about what it means to be alive.

Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.

At the heart of it all, Kafka on the Shore is a story of love and loss and how it affects the identity. The characters in the story find themselves trapped in time, struggling to find themselves in the present because of what happened in the past. Kafka is constantly haunted by the missing pieces of his childhood and finds himself searching the world, lost and unable to find himself – constantly wondering where his mother is and why she left him. He meets, Saeki, who in a strange twist of fate, happens to be his mother (or so the reader believes; it’s neither confirmed or denied, but instead it’s up to the reader to decide – it all comes back to the concept of the metaphor).

Saeki and Nakata represent different phases in human consciousness and time. Through Murakami’s metaphysical world-building, the reader is introduced to another world that exists outside of time. Saeki represents the past – a piece of herself is missing and she is constantly living in her memories. On the other hand, Nakata is a representation of the present. He lives entirely in the now as a piece of himself is lost in the past – taken from him by some unknown circumstance that occurred at the end of World War II. Through their actions, human perceptions are explored further through love and loss and how they drive us to act out against our personal boundaries to transform identities.

In addition to the notion of duality that is introduced through the opposite figures of Saeki and Nakata, another character, Oshima, represents a true split in identity. Just as a person’s sense of who they are changes depending on their background and surroundings, as well as their internal motivations, desires, and perceptions of the world, Oshima represents the fluid nature of the identity.

On the outside, Oshima is a boy. While reading Kafka on the Shore, the reader is lead to believe that Oshima is in fact, male. The pronoun used to describe him is always masculine and he appears to be a male in all aspects. In an interesting turn of events, however, it is revealed that Oshima is in fact, a girl. He was born a girl and has not undergone any sort of physical transformation, but he appears to be a boy in all his outward appearances. Through Oshima in particular, Murakami explores the idea of personal perceptions and how they shape a person’s sense of thought. Furthermore, he makes a statement about how a person’s identity is shaped. All in all, a person’s identity is shaped by their internal feelings about themselves. Despite all of the outward influences that affect our lives, at the end of the day, only you can shape your own identity and create a future for yourself.

Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe.

All in all, Kafka on the Shore is a wonderful novel that explores notions of identity, reality and time in connection to human perception. Full of strange and abstract concepts, as well as difficult and at times, gruesome events, Murakami weaves an incredible story that will stay with you for some time. Although challenging at times, Murakami’s witty humor and jabs at social constructions through character dialogue lighten the mood and help you push your way through this strange and mysterious work of art.

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Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.