S. Kumar & Company

Leaps of Faith, Language and Story that's Out of this World

S. Kumar

A fan's review of

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami

Reading Murakami is akin to taking a leap off an unknown high location where someone you trust has taken you, while you've been blindfolded. You don't know where you are or where you'll end up. You do know that it will be in a relatively safe and familiar place and the journey will be extremely worthwhile. You jump off and as you're plunging down, you take your blindfold off and enjoy the passing sights and sounds. You know you'll land relatively safely (maybe a few bruises, but nothing more). The destination may not even become one of your favorites, but boy did you have fun getting there! And you'll want to go back.

Any good book holds your attention in two ways. The story must be engaging and the writing must keep you interested. Most readers will forgive indiscretions in the story if the writing pays off. Murakami hardly ever fails you in that regard. With Murakami you often get both. The language is always impeccable, unimaginable even. In Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami stresses style and language considerably - even more than in many of his past works. Extended passages of people alone with their thoughts are nothing new to his readers (See especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the book). He creates quite an amount of that in this book, as well. You never feel that he is repeating himself, only extending himself further and taking you along on the lovely ride.

Murakami often insists that you take tremendous leaps of faith with his stories. In addition, he asks you to do the same with his language. Is that even possible? How can you be forced to take that jump? How can you not with a sentence like "Her smile steps offstage for a moment, then does an encore?" Of course, we readers of his works in English take an additional leap of faith with the translator. Given the excellent work of his translators in the past, it is yet another easy one. This one is another excellent work by Philip Gabriel, who has also translated Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun.

The story development style is very much the same as in his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World with only a couple of slight variations. One strand is about a young boy calling himself Kafka, who is being raised by his father after his mother abandoned them taking her daughter with her when he was four. He decides to run away from home when he turns fifteen in search of something, maybe his life or his past and doesn't quite know what except that he wants it very much. The second is about this strange man who - due to an unusual incident early in his life - has very unusual abilities and despite being self-admittedly dumb, knows enough that he sets out on his quest, as well. Each is assisted a great deal in his quest by relative strangers, one an ordinary truck driver and another a very unusual library employee.

Even as the two parallel stories struggle to converge (& they barely manage to do so), the language makes the reader forget silly notions like story and nicely packaged endings and closed loops. Does it really matter that the protagonists in the two parallel stories and their stories never end up in neatly tied knots? Who cares that marginal or sidekick-style characters end up with very large roles to play, while their lives are barely acknowledged, their stories left quite undeveloped?

Do we concern ourselves with their incredible strengths of character, only barely alluded to in the narrative, their glories a passing aside to the main events? Things are a bit too perfect while being totally imperfect. If this seems contradictory, you had better tie yourself to your chair or better yet, only read it lying down on the ground as you embark on this wild and surreal mixture of normality (yes, even this does exist), abnormality, and certainly the absurd. If you think that people speaking to cats is pushing it, what would you think of everything else?

The language and the zany ride are quite something. True, the story never quite makes it, leaving a certain amount of wanting for more. The balance, however, is considerably in the reader's favor. There are plenty of good stories around, but we would never read them if the language didn't hold us to them. Forget the destination and enjoy the wild ride. No talking sheep men or cute chubby girls in pink suits here - you'll never miss them with everything else that is here.

Here's another example of why you would never miss those or forgive the story issues: "And with these words, audibly, the frozen part of my heart crumbles."

Will we live with there being no easy answers? That may be what his fans really want - providing them with hopes for more, a hint of future conclusions to these. Or maybe completely separate developments. We will take any and all of those. Enjoy the free fall. Oh! And pack a parachute.

Do you have comments on this review? I appreciate all your feedback.