With the U.K. under lockdown for much of 2020, our newfound abundance of time has inspired new heights of introspection among many. What better time, then, to tackle Haruki Murakami’s great metaphysical and introspective mind-bender, Kafka on the Shore? Elegantly diminishing boundaries between reality and dream, waking-life and the subconscious, Murakami holds his ground as a master of magical realist literature in this novel of 2002.
Kafka on the Shore narrates the metaphysical ponderings of its eponymous hero, Kafka Tamura, and his apparently incidental cosmic counterpart, Satoru Nakata. This enchantingly peculiar bildungsroman begins with the mysterious 15-year-old Kafka fleeing his home in Tokyo to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy, while sequential chapters unravel the meanderings of Nakata, an ageing gentleman afflicted with a bizarre childhood injury and who, remarkably, possesses an ability to talk to cats.
Kafka exhibits Murakami’s usual amalgam of contemporary Japanese pop culture, metropolitan life, humour and unadorned sexuality while simultaneously breaking new ground into profound self-analysis; exploring the ephemerality of human life through his manifestation of what I will refer to as the ‘dreamscape’ – the impalpable subconscious plane on which a great deal of the novel takes place.
Murakami’s novel assimilates the unremarkable conventions of popular culture with eccentricities so absurd that we eventually emerge – as Laura Miller writes – ‘as if from a trance, convinced [we’ve] made contact with something significant, if not entirely sure what that something is’. A feeling that (I will argue) differs very little from rousing from an uncanny dream.
Kafka on the Shore’s plot orbits around what has been described as the ‘intersection of the nostalgic, the linguistic, and the magical’; a middle ground between the past, waking reality, and the subconscious mind. It is through Kafka’s dreamscape that this is materialised. Our teenage protagonist becomes infatuated with the beautiful and reclusive manager of the Komura Library, Miss Saeki, and in dreams Kafka begins an intimate and physical relationship with a girlish, spectral Saeki. But was it really just a dream? Murakami is teasingly vague. His most powerful abstraction in this novel originates from his notion that Kafka’s dreams become progressively more autonomous than his waking experiences.
We are encouraged to contemplate this notion further through the words of Oshima – the senior librarian at the Komura Library. His retelling of ‘The Tale of Genji’, the 11th Century classic by Lady Murasaki wherein Lady Rokujo – one of Prince Genji’s lovers – becomes so consumed with jealousy over Genji’s wife Lady Aoi that she becomes possessed by an evil spirit and repeatedly attacks (and eventually kills) Aoi in her dreams without ever being aware of it.
This emphasis on predetermined fate and the autonomy of the subconscious mind at times flattens the plot into the second dimension as Kafka and Nakata journey towards their fatalistic destination. Yet around us, Murakami juxtaposes this linearity with a literary landscape enlivened by the garish tones of hyper-consumerism – perhaps most notably manifested in the allegorical characters of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders.
In Kafka and Nakata’s world – one where sardines and mackerel fall from the sky like rain – Johnnie Walker represents a sinister antagonistic force: a man who kills cats with the intention of making a magical flute from their souls. Colonel Sanders, by stark contrast, is a ‘metaphysical conceptual object’ choosing to manifest as a consumerist mascot, helping Nakata and his companion Hoshino on their adventure in Takamatsu and providing no shortage of cutting humour along the way. Both characters overtly defy the boundaries of naturalistic existence and live, therefore, assimilated somewhere within the dreamscape that Kafka and Nakata share.
As the novel advances, we find that temporal structure and narrative linearity become increasingly fluid and, aptly, Kafkaesque; Takamatsu, for example, appears to temporarily stabilize Kafka’s ever-shifting existence. Yet when he ventures out of the city to the cabin in the mountains on the recommendation of Oshima, Kafka’s lucidity begins to dwindle.
‘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.‘
It soon becomes evident that Kafka’s adventure into the forest parallels his expedition into his inner psyche. The ‘place’ that he eventually finds – what I will refer to as the Village – presents itself as somewhere defiant of temporal chronology: Murakami’s use of anachrony – specifically analepsis – further stagnates the Village within its own timelessness when Kafka is confronted by two deserters from World War II – one definitive indication that we are no longer inhabiting linear temporality – if indeed we ever were.
Murakami has frequently asserted that there is no definitive meaning that must be teased out from between the lines of Kafka on the Shore, but that, in a truly postmodern fashion, the novel becomes whatever the reader makes of it. For me, Kafka is an abstract rumination on our state of consciousness and the power of the dreaming mind. Kafka’s dreamscape becomes a place for him to escape to, and later to escape from. Murakami plays with the idea of the dreamscape not as an intangible metaphorical landscape, but a corporeal stasis of time. Both artful and elegant, Kafka on the Shore explores our dreams in a naturalistic context and, for me, remains an unparalleled example of metaphysical literature at its finest.
Image: ‘NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’ via Flickr