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Book Review: Kafka on the Shore
Teen escapes from a crazy dad...just for starters
Remi Moon

In Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore, lots of fantastical stuff happens. There are mysterious portals to other worlds, strange animals fall from the sky, and humans can travel through spirits. I couldn’t put the book down.

Set in Japan, the novel weaves together parallel tales of two characters. One is a 15 year-old boy named Kafka and the other is an elderly, mentally-challenged man named Nakata. The two stories are presented in alternating chapters; the odd chapters are dedicated to Kafka while the evens tell Nakata’s story.

Kafka’s story starts with him running away from home on a quest to find his mother and sister who, for an unknown reason, left when he was young. Kafka had never been happy with his world-renowned sculptor dad, always feeling like he never loved him.

Will I Kill My Father?

Kafka’s father also tells him that an “Oedipus” curse was put on him. Oedipus is a character from Greek mythology who kills his father and then has sexual intercourse with his mother and sister. Kafka’s dad predicts that same series of events will happen to him. This fear haunts Kafka, and this is a driving aspect of the novel.

The other plot focuses on the old man Nakata, who is a victim of the U.S. attack on Japan during World War II. His memory was affected; he doesn’t remember who he is, how to read, or what Japan even is. But he also gained mystical abilities as a result of his injuries. He can talk to cats and cause weird weather occurrences, like leeches and fish falling from the sky.

His journey starts when he is helping a cat return to its owner. After a series of mysterious events, Nakata hitchhikes to a small town named Shikoku, where Kafka is coincidentally searching for his family.

image by Knopf Doubleday Publishing; Vintage

The stories are radically different and happen in alternating chapters so they don’t seem connected at first. But subtle details begin to connect them. Their paths never cross, but they interact with the same people, and their actions start to affect each other.

On Kafka’s journey he meets several people. One is a teenage girl named Sakura who he has a brief sexual encounter with. Oshima is a man who works at a library where he allows Kafka to sleep, hide and work. An older woman, Miss Saeki, who owns the library.

Much of the book takes place in Kafka’s mind. There is a lot of internal dialogue, especially from a condescending, brash voice in his head that is constantly questioning his actions. He can’t help wondering if his father’s prediction about living out the Oedipus complex is coming true. Maybe Sakura is really his long lost older sister. Maybe Miss Saeki is really his mother. I don’t want to give away too much, but the stories are interwoven so delicately and intricately, that the only way to fully grasp what’s going on is to read the book.

Bridging East and West

Murakami is a 65-year-old Japanese writer. His work is translated into other languages, and is extremely popular in America, even more so than in Japan. In a New York Times article I read that many Japanese critics dislike Murakami. They said he is too influenced by the Western world and not “Japanese” enough.

I’m an Asian American and although I think it’s important to appreciate your culture, I don’t think you should be limited to only writing about it. I like that he incorporates Western ideas such as Greek mythology, and pop culture references like Jack Daniels, a popular whiskey, and Harland Sanders, the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He explores themes of humanity, friendship, love, and reality. Those are universal. Other popular books by him include, A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and 1Q84.

The book made me think about my relationships in new ways. The relationship Kafka has with his mother and sister is very distant—both physically and emotionally. You see him always trying to cover this distance by looking for them, but getting off track, constantly worried that he is going to fulfill his father’s Oedipus prophecy.

This made me examine my own relationship with my parents. Though I don’t have an Oedipus complex, I do struggle with trying to connect with my parents while also growing up and wanting to stay independent. Nakata and Hoshino’s friendship, though very weird, shows how sometimes people who are very different from you can mean so much and impact you in surprising ways. Sometimes it’s the people you never thought you’d connect with that you end up being the closest with.

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