Kafka on the Shore is the sixth Murakami I read. After I finished, I searched online for what other people thought of it. I found many reactions, ranging from love to confused admiration to moral and rational disgust. There are people determined to get to the bottom of the book’s mysteries, people who have vowed never to read another Murakami novel, and people who think he’s sexist, constantly overlooked for the Novel Prize in Literature and pretty darn entertaining to read.
I’m in the last camp. I consume Murakami’s worlds whole. They’re dreams I can experience whenever I want and revisit as many times as I care to flip open the covers (or poke them on my ereader). Even that makes me think of sleep: under the covers, opening the covers, under Murakami’s brain, opening Murakami’s brain…
But, seriously, just what is the meaning of Kafka on the Shore?
Nakata likes eels.
That’s really all you need to know. That’s the answer to the book. If you don’t believe me, check the teacher’s edition, which has a checklist of solutions in the back. It’s also a life truth, because properly prepared eel is delicious. I’m lying about the eel. I’ve never had it. But now you can read Kafka on the Shore and simply enjoy it.
The Archduke Trio
Q & A
Here’s a website with Murakami’s answers to readers’ questions about Kafka on the Shore. For example:
We hear that your Japanese publisher has actually produced a website to help readers understand the meaning of this book. Since we won’t be able to read the site, can you tell us in your own words what some of the “secrets” of the book are?
On this website in the space of three months I received over 8,000 questions from readers, and personally responded to over 1,200 of them. It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed it. What I concluded from this exchange was that the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy—and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it—but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus.
Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.
Jay Rubin is Murakami’s chief English translator. He didn’t translate Kafka on the Shore. According to the author of this blog, Rubin gave a talk in which he said he passed on translating the book because he didn’t like it past Chapter 16, in which Johnnie Walker kills cats, and he was particularly put off by Oshima’s preachiness about high culture.
Eureka! No, wait…
I have a confession to make. Not only did I lie about trying eel, I also lied about not trying to solve Kafka on the Shore. But it was a white lie, I swear. Only in the beginning did I try to piece Murakami’s broken plate together. I read about Kafka Tamura, then I read about the strange happening in the woods, and when Nakata came along I was still carefully gluing—until Miss Saeki distracted me. Nakata is the boy in the woods during the strange incident. That much is clear. The nature of the incident is not. There are also parallel worlds, one of which may be a spirit world, which may mean that a body and spirit can exist separately. That much is also clear. The entrance to this second world can be opened and closed from the first. Miss Saeki most likely opened it. It would therefore make narrative sense for her opening to be the cause of the strange incident in the forest, which ultimately sets Nakata on his quest to close the entrance. However, Miss Saeki is too young. Nakata is too old. Barring the blurring of time in addition to the blurring of space, that explanation fails. That’s when I was done. That’s as far as I got. Good night.
“There are slow second acts in Japanese lives.”
I think I understand what Jay Rubin was talking about. Kafka on the Shore pulled me in. I read the first third of it in two days. I got to Chapter 16, and I was shocked. This was the most unnerving and brutal Murakami I’d ever known. And then the story hit doldrums. Kafka was living in his library, Nakata was hitch-hiking out of the city. I put the book down for a while. When I picked it up again, I was lukewarm about it. Until I got to the last third, which was again fantastic. By this time I had cleared away my reasoning utensils, donned my dreamer’s cap and I was captivated and, perhaps more than during any Murakami novel except Norwegian Wood, an altogether different type of novel, I was moved. In my head, Hayao Miyzaki was adapting the words into images and I was beautifully, willingly spirited away until my eyes passed the final word (“world”).
Does kafka mean crow in Czech?
Contrary to what Kafka Tamura claims, the Czech word kavka does not mean crow. But it’s close. A kavka is a jackdaw, and jackdaws, ravens and crows all belong to the corvus genus of the corvidae family of birds. The Czech word for crow is vrána.
The most important musical compositions in Kafka on the Shore are small: a trio, a quartet. Their brilliance comes from the interplay of a few equally important elements. That’s what Murakami’s novels are. I have no idea how Murakami writes, and I don’t want to know because a knowledge of process often ruins mystery, but I imagine each of his novels as a handful of disparate tales stitched somehow so ingeniously together that we not only notice the stitches but openly enjoy the seam work. The main plot lines in Kafka on the Shore don’t have to fit together rationally. It’s more important that they belong by exclusion, by being impossible in any other fictional world. In this respect Kafka on the Shore succeeds admirably. Kafka, Nakata, Oshima, Hoshino, Miss Saeki, the white slug that may be the creature that The Boy Named Crow can’t peck to death, or Johnnie Walker, who is also Kafka Tamura’s father, et al.—they all inhabit the same reality even when we don’t understand that reality’s rules.
I can pinpoint the moment when Kafka on the Shore squeezed my heart:
Finally, he went into the room where Nakata lay in bed. The AC was still on full blast, and the room was freezing. “Hey there, Mr. Nakata,” he said, “I’m about ready to take off. Sorry, but I can’t stay here forever. I’ll call the cops from the station so they can come take care of your body. We’ll just have to leave the rest up to some kind patrolmen, okay? We’ll never see each other again, but I’ll never forget you. Even if I tried to, I don’t think I could.”
With a loud rattle the air conditioner shut off.
“You know what, Gramps?” he went on. “I think that whenever something happens in the future I’ll always wonder—What would Mr. Nakata say about this? What would Mr. Nakata do? I’ll always have someone I can turn to. And that’s kind of a big deal, if you think about it. It’s like part of you will always live inside me. Not that I’m the best container you could find, but better than nothing, huh?”
Nakata enters the novel late, Hoshino even later (take that, traditional storytelling paradigms!), but its their unique relationship, which I didn’t like at first and which I never imagined would last for the remainder of the novel, that “solves” Kafka on the Shore for me.
Almost all of the characters in the novel are solitary, and their solitariness is a kind of emptiness. Nakata says this directly more than once. Miss Saeki has a gap in her life. Kafka yearns for memories: to remember the faces of his mother and sister, and to remember that despite abandoning him, they loved him. Hoshino’s emptiness is the least tragic. His grandfather, the only person to give a shit about him, died. He never valued his girlfriends. He’s coasting through life as a truck driver.
And then those paragraphs come along and Hoshino realizes that he’s not empty anymore. Because of the time he spent with Nakata, Nakata will always be with him. Memories are gifts from one who loves to one who is loved that fill the loved one’s body with spirit. Or, to say same with less cheese: they’re the sticky tape that keeps your soul stuck to your soles. People with good memories never have to fear losing half their shadow.
Murakami shows us this through a relationship between a young trucker and an old illiterate man who may have encountered aliens. There’s a lot of sex in Murakami’s novels, but not all love is sexual or familial. Romantic love and maternal love can fill a body with memories, but so can friendship, even a short, zany and unexpected one.
Memories don’t just anchor bodies. They also anchor novels. And if a body without memories is empty, so is a story told by Murakami. Time and again, Murakami returns to history, which is nothing more than the collective memory of a community. Is a novel without history empty, too? Are readers of a particular book also a community, sharing a bank of fictional memories?
For answers to those and other questions, tune in next week to An Explanation of Kafka on the Shore, starring your host:
You in bunny slippers.