Magical Realism on the Shores of Japan

I don’t tend to give out five-star ratings very lightly; in fact, the only book I’ve read this year that was worthy of five stars was Cloud Atlas. Until now. This morning I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long, long time. 460 pages hasn’t gone by so fast in a while! Murakami’s novel came out in 2002 in Japan but was released in the U.S. in English a few years later. I had heard of the book, and the author, but I hadn’t read it nor anything by Murakami. I guess I had some preconceived notion based on stereotype that Japanese novels were always about World War II or Geisha girls and what not, but of course like any cliché that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kafka on the Shore is a brilliant novel that crosses multiple genres and takes the reader on a strange journey that would make Franz Kafka himself proud.

The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home to escape his father, a famous sculptor and possibly a mad cat-killing psycho. The other protagonist is Satoru Nakata, a 60-year-old man who lost most of his intelligence after a strange flash in the sky during World War II and who as a result can talk to cats and make it rain fish. The two are connected but never meet, and in the spirit of the magical realism of the novel may in fact be the same person! Nakata is also on a journey, having killed Kafka’s father (maybe, or perhaps it was Kafka acting through Nakata). Kafka ends up in a quiet beach town where he may or may not have discovered his mother and sister, both of whom abandoned him and his father when Kafka was four. Nakata is not so much running from the murder charges as much as he’s running toward an event that may set him free from his chains and potentially shed light on Kafka’s life story. Along the way we meet strange characters like a pimp dressed up like Colonel Sanders, a pair of Japanese soldiers from World War II who have not aged and who guard the entrance to a magical place that may be the gateway to heaven (or hell), and a transgender librarian who helps Kafka discover his place in the world. Oh yeah, Kafka may also be sleeping with his mother and gets a hand job from a teenage girl who may be his sister. Can you see why Kafka on the Shore has been compared to a Greek tragedy and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel?

Murakami’s novel is certainly Kafkaesque, but it’s also tender and funny and inspiring. Both Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata are honorable and empathetic characters who as a reader you can’t help but root for. Kafka has clearly had a troubled childhood and his father didn’t help matters. When he runs away from home he is searching for himself as well as his mother and sister and like any coming of age story the trials he goes through, both mental and physical, shape his future in a positive way. Nakata is a tragic character because he is dumb and lives on a “sub city” from the “Governor” as he says. But he’s also a strong character because he is unselfish and good (he kills the mysterious cat killer only to save the lives of other cats he has befriended and because the man encourages him to kill him). But for me it’s the magical realism that makes the story so amazing. The reader never really knows what is real and what is not in the story. Some of the characters and events may or may not be what they appear to be, and may even be figments of Kafka’s imagination. These mysteries do not ultimately reveal themselves but rather the reader is left to ponder them at the conclusion of the book. In fact, after the novel was published Murakami put up a website for readers to ask questions and it received more than 8,000!

Kafka on the Shore is the kind of novel that reaffirms why I love reading so much. I literally couldn’t put down my Nook and several times fell asleep on the sofa reading because I didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. I highly recommend it, especially if you like magical realism, and even if you have no idea what magical realism is this novel is a great introduction to it. As for me, expect to  see a whole bunch of Murakami books added to my “to-read” list.

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