Master of the ordinary

Haruki Murakami's latest novel unveils a world in which the fantastic is trite and the everyday profound.

Published January 21, 2005 7:17PM (EST)

For all the fantastic and farcical happenings in Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" -- amnesia that renders the one who suffers it capable of talking with cats; an evil spirit building a flute of stolen souls, both human and animal; another spirit, this one a benevolent pimp, disguised as Colonel Sanders; a woman whose longing for the lost love of her youth gives rise to a ghost of her younger self; fish and leeches raining from the sky; two Japanese soldiers from World War II standing guard in a forest at the gates to the afterlife -- it's the most ordinary things that attain poetry and weight.

I came fairly late to Murakami (and still haven't caught up) because I confess to being one of those readers who, hearing that a novel contains elements of fantasy and the surreal, imagine something that's impossibly arch while straining to inspire wonder. Even those of us who are turned off by the drabness of much contemporary realist fiction don't particularly want to read books about spouses that become pets, or goldfish who are really the Buddha, or gardens that contain entrances to subway stations.

Murakami escapes the forced winsomeness that often hampers novelists who dabble in the fantastic, largely because the deceptive plainness of his language makes the sudden appearance of something strange as matter of fact as stopping off for a cup of coffee. With the exception of one episode so grotesque it throws you out of the novel, none of the oddball things that happen in the course of "Kafka on the Shore" stick out. They don't add up, either, but this is one of those novels where the book the author seems to think he's writing is less affecting than the one he's actually written.

Temperamentally, "Kafka on the Shore" is a coming-of-age story. On his 15th birthday, Kafka Tamura, the son of a famous sculptor, leaves home and heads north. The reasons seem, at first, typically adolescent. Kafka feels he doesn't fit in at the upscale private school he goes to. He feels suffocated by his father and bereft of any real connection to him. Kafka says his plan is to "journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library." And that's just what he does. The town he settles in has a private estate that's been turned into a public library. Kafka befriends Oshima, the library's pin-neat assistant, and winds up living in a spare room in the former mansion, doing minimal chores in exchange for a roof over his head and the chance to be surrounded by books.

Less easily classifiable circumstances creep into the narrative. Part of what drives Kafka from home is the desire to find the mother who deserted the family years before, taking Kafka's small sister with her. The boy is also fearful of an Oedipal prophecy his own father made to him at a young age. Kafka's father has told him that he (Kafka) will murder his father and sleep with his mother. And the father goes Sophocles one better by claiming Kafka will sleep with his sister as well.

Alternating chapters with Kafka's story is the tale of Nakata, a gentle old pensioner who lost the ability to read and write after a childhood accident and who lives simply and contentedly by himself, making a little extra money by searching for lost cats. He's especially suited for that task because he's able to converse with cats.

Had I not yet read Murakami and came upon that bit of information in a review or on the jacket copy, I'd flip the page and reason that this book wasn't going to be on my night table anytime soon. But, again, Murakami introduces the conceit with little fanfare: "'Hello there,' the old man called out. The large, elderly black tomcat raised its head a fraction and wearily returned the greeting in a low voice." And so we're into a conversation between a man and a cat before we have time to object. And the scene proceeds so smoothly, so uninterested in any cutesy effect that might be wrung from it, that you simply go with it.

You go, too, with the stranger things that follow. After a violent episode occurs in the course of Nakata's locating a lost cat (too horrendous to support the tired moral lesson it seems to be relating; if I have to have a moral lesson, can't it come without animals being tortured?), the old man sets out on a journey because there is something he must do. What that is or even where he will have to do it, he doesn't know. All he knows is that he'll know the place and the task when he finds it. Hoshino, a young trucker who gives him a ride part of the way, ends up Nakata's traveling companion and protector, drawn into Nakata's vague quest, gradually realizing he's happy to go along.

Too much of "Kafka on the Shore" can be summed up by "X may or may not be ...": Nakata may or not be an older version of Kafka. The girl Kafka meets on a long bus ride may or may not be his lost sister. The woman who runs the library where he finds a refuge and a job may or not be his lost mother. Nakata may or may not have killed an evil spirit who may or may not be Kafka's father.

Murakami is too refined, too unadorned a writer for "Kafka on the Shore" to go spinning off into incomprehensibility. And if I read him right, the conclusions he's reached here are homiletic: The world offers no promises of safety; knowing ourselves means knowing the worst we are capable of; regret for the past deadens us to the present; and, most strongly, a full life means running the risk of encountering the pain and violence the world holds.

The combination of pat lessons and loose narrative threads might be a fatal one for any book, especially a book as big (nearly 500 pages) as this one. But I loved reading "Kafka on the Shore." The book may not, finally, add up (or not to anything deep), but it never feels hackneyed. Murakami has written a novel where the fantastic is trite and the everyday is profound.

Throughout "Kafka on the Shore," Murakami's writing strikes a singular balance between the ascetic and the sensual. A simple meal, a nap, the feeling of lying in the sun, the satisfying sweat you develop from exercise, the joy of having books to read -- in other words, some of the simplest pleasures you can imagine -- are rendered with the type of simplicity that only comes from extraordinary refinement. (Perhaps Murakami writes so beautifully about sex because, as with the fantasy elements of his novels, he treats it naturally, not as something apart from life.) Murakami, a great jazz fan, does something in his prose comparable to what Miles Davis did in his great '50s work: His notes are spare but so carefully chosen that together they feel rich. You don't think about what has been eliminated but about the essence that has been distilled into the unadorned words.

There are moments in "Kafka on the Shore" that could feel impossibly sappy. Hoshino, the truck driver who accompanies Nakata on his quest, wanders at one point into a deserted cafe and suddenly finds himself enraptured by the Rubinstein, Heifetz and Feuermann recording of Beethoven's "Archduke Trio." Around the same time he goes on the spur of the moment to a double bill of "The 400 Blows" and "Shoot the Piano Player" and finds himself responding to the movies unlike any he's ever bothered with. This is the kind of awakening usually reserved for adolescent characters. It's unusual to read it happening to an adult character, and I think it's significant, heartening, a show of faith on the author's part that culture is not something reserved for the select few but is open to anyone who opens themselves to it.

Unexpected relationships are at the heart of the book, the relation between Hoshino and strange old Nakata, between Kafka and Oshima, between Kafka and Miss Saeki, the director of the library he settles in. Murakami places great weight on empathy. Time and again characters reveal secrets about themselves, the sort that could put barriers between them. (Oshima, in particular, has a secret that in lesser hands could have turned him into a freak or an object of pity; instead it makes him seem an even rarer bird than he is.) Those secrets are the tests Murakami puts before his characters, to see if they are worthy of inclusion in his book. It's not a snobbish test. It's the writer's way of saying these are the people he chooses to spend time with. He's not interested, here at least, in characters who can't make that simple leap of empathy.

In big ways, "Kafka on the Shore" doesn't work. The ways in which it consistently does work, taken together, are a bigger accomplishment than the book's fuzzy and banal themes. It's the summations Murakami works toward that are unsatisfying here. The countless moments in which he writes of life as a gift could almost be plunked down in stories as prayerlike as Jean Giono's "The Man Who Planted Trees" and feel right at home. Murakami is one of those rare writers who can render contentment without making it feel like complicity. And one of the rarer ones who can make decency attractive.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------