Book Review: Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki

This is a surrealist novel about a 15-year-old boy at the age of puberty, dreaming about escaping loneliness. In the beginning he is setting off on a journey on a quest for his mother and sister, who left them a long time ago. Kafka Tamura has only one photo in his hand. It shows him and his sister at a beach. He asks himself „Who took this photo? Was it his mother? Where is she and what happened to her? Is she dead?“

His journey begins.

Then there is Nakata. An old man who has survived a gas attack in World War II during his childhood. He became ill due to this incident and lost his memory. But he has the special skill to chat with cats and he gets strangely involved with what, the murder of Kafka’s father back in Tokyo?

He is on the run.

Kafka finds shelter in a library in Takamatsu. He makes friends with the librarian, gets a part-time job and a room there. Strange things occur to him, he finds himself unconscious and full of blood in the night of his father’s death. Is it possible, that he has murdered him?

The head of the library is Miss Saeki. A sophisticated mysterious woman in her fifties. She likes Kafka because he reminds her of a lover of her youth. Kafka loves her too. Is she his mother?

In the meantime Nakata, the old stupid man, is also on his way to Takamatsu in company with the trucker Hoshino, who is giving him a ride. Nakata was given the mission by divine inspiration to get hold of a so-called entrance stone. Although Hoshina, the trucker, can make no sense of it, he helps him. He likes the old guy Nakata because he reminds him of his grandfather.

In the meantime Kafka’s father was found dead in his house in Tokyo. The police is therefore searching for Kafka, who is missing, and also for Nakata, who is suspected of the murder. It takes some time, but finally they will looking for them both in Takamatsu.

The escape begins.

Kafka feels no longer safe in the library. Meanwhile he is mixed up in a relationship with Miss Saeki. The librarian takes Kafka into the woods into a small cabin. There he falls into a delirium and has mysterious visions. In this state of mind he sets out into the deep woods, where he gets lost. Of course strange things happen there too. The story gets more surrealistic. Can Kafka escape?

Murakami weaves in several stories into this novel and changes the perspectives permanently. He uses historical documents, philosophical thoughts and throws in examples of Japanese and European literature, as of Natsume Sôseki, the ‘Genji monogatari’, ‘Tales of Moonlight shadows’, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and ‘Ovid Metamorphosis’ or the Eichmann biography. Murakami plays with the names of Kafka, Johnnie Walker, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken icon ‘Colonel Sanders’. So this is the typical Murakami mix, so many readers like and which makes his novels unique.

The story is growing weird, more abstract and also confusing at times. Dialogues with Miss Saeki are somehow difficult to understand. What is the truth?

The stories of the main characters Kafka Tamura, Nakata, Hoshino and Miss Saeki are intertwined and their personalities are going through a metamorphosis. But eventually who knows, was it all a dream?

In the end many questions will be left unanswered, but one has witnessed many changes during reading this novel. At the last page, I wanted to turn to the beginning and wanted to read it again.

Title in Japanese: 海辺のカフカ (Umibe no Kafuka) 2002.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage International (Cover 2006).