There are some books you want to love so much, but which – for some reason – you cannot. There’s a barrier between you and what you think you should feel about the book. And this is one of those books.
There is so much about it that chimed wonderfully with all the things I love: mythic echoes, intertextual references, an Oedipal prophecy, fluid barriers between the past and the present, an intersex librarian, prophetic cats and morally ambiguous embodied metaphysical concepts. With some weird sex thrown in at the same time. These ideas are resonant and powerful… and yet…
The novel follows two parallel journeys: Kafka Tamura, “the world’s toughest fifteen-year-old”, fleeing from the familiar Oedipal prophecy, and look how well that turned out in both Oedipus Rex and Everything Under by Daisy Johnson; and Nakata, a mentally impaired elderly man who we first hear about, tangentially, as the victim of an unexplained coma who, after he awoke, did so as a “blank slate” with no memory and no past and barely half a shadow, albeit with the ability to talk to and understand cats. Both characters follow the same journey, from Nakano Ward in Tokyo to Takamatsu, over slightly different time scales which eventually converge although the two characters never actually meet.
The prompt for Nakata’s journey is the sudden eruption into his life of the bizarre character Johnny Walker, named for and dressed as the image on the whisky company. He is the one of the ambiguous non-human metaphysical characters we meet – possibly kami from the Shinto faith, possibly something else, possibly “neither god nor Buddha … rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man” – and possibly also Kafka’s father or a portion of him and a self confessed cat killer. The depiction of his actual cat killing was particularly horrific and grotesque, causing Nakata to stab him to death, lose his ability to speak to cats but apparently gain the ability to rain fish and leeches from the sky, and embark on his quest (eventually) to Takamatsu.
In Takamatsu, Kafka meets the earthly Sakura and after a few aimless days finds himself employed at and living in the Komura Memorial Library. There, he ends up working alongside the erudite transgender Oshima – whose response to the complaints of women that he is a typical sexist patriarchal male because he sees no need for gendered toilets or to reorganise a card catalogue to put female writers before male ones, is priceless – and the distant and enigmatic Miss Saeki. Sakura who may or may not be his sister; Miss Saeki who may or may not be his mother; Oshima who guides him to the cabin he has in the woods, near a gateway into another alternative reality, and who may or may not be intended to take on the role of Tiresias.
The opening – and later the closing – of the gateway by Oshima’s cabin falls back to Nakata who has acquired a companion, friend – possibly disciple is the better word – on his travels, Hoshima, who provides the physical strength that Nakata lacks and takes his place by the end of the story. A strangely talkative entrance stone.
Four main characters – Nakata, Kafka, Miss Saeki and Hoshino – all encounter or are associated with Murakami’s strange and metaphysical constructs: Johnny Walker, The Boy Named Crow, a spirit of her own fifteen year old self and Colonel Sanders, respectively. Some seem in conflict with others, some antagonistic and some helpful. And I am in no way sure that I quite understand what these characters are or what they may signify – I could hazard some guesses but perhaps one of the pleasures in reading is to form those connections and ideas yourself.
So, where in all this is the barrier?
I think in some ways, it is the fact that the novel is in translation and that translation is a little repetitive – I’m not sure how often Nakata rubbed his salt-and-pepper hair in thought or Hoshino put on his Chunichi Dragons cap. It may be that the novel is steeped in a culture with which I am not wholly familiar, although it is also deeply inspired by and resonant with world literature and culture with which I am more familiar. It may be that the metaphysical came at the expense of the characterisation – and therefore the more grounded characters, Sakura and Hoshino, came as a pleasant breath of fresh air. It may be that I was listening to it as an audiobook and it made the reading more slow.
In any event, something about the novel felt distant and cold.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: 6th October 2005