Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
This book was a real page turner. This afternoon I totally dodged work to finish it. Somehow I thought it would get old or anticlimactic, but it didn’t for me. Thoroughly enjoyable and though-provoking—the most compelling read so far this year.
The novel starts the with a fifteen-year old boy, who has named himself Kafka, preparing to run away from home and discussing his plans with “the boy named Crow”, obviously his alter ego. Chapter 2 switches to top secret documents of the US occupation forces about an incident during World War II where a class of school children on an outing in the country all fall into a coma, all except the teacher, that is. Eventually we learn that all the children woke up again in a few hours and were fine, but one child was in a coma for several days and when he woke up was never the same again. Neither the Japanese investigations at the time nor the American ones during the occupation period are able to explain what happened. The boy’s narrative in the present and the old documents alternate as the boy takes some money and a knife, flashlight, sunglasses and a picture from his father’s desk and hops a bus to Takamatsu where he’s made a reservation at a small business hotel. Chapter 6 introduces Mr. Nakata who talks to cats and ekes out a precarious living finding lost cats for his neighbors. He’s an endearing character who explains everything by saying, “Mr. Nakata is not very bright” and indeed his has problems negotiating the world he lives in since he can’t read. Relatively early on, we realize he is the little boy who was in the coma from the “accident” during the war. One day looking for lost cats he meet a bad man who calls himself Johnny Walker. Johnny Walker paralyzes cats and then slits their guts open and cuts off their heads. He says he has to “harvest their souls” in order to make a flute. He has 5 cats he is about to kill, among with is Mimi, a cat with whom Mr. Nakata is friendly, and Goma, the cat he’s currently commissioned to find. Johnny Walker explains that he’s tired of what he’s doing and he wants to be killed by Mr. Nakata. Then he begins killing the cats in the most cold-blooded manner possible. After the third cat, the mild-mannered Mr. Nakata is stirred to such a fury that he grabs the knife and kills Johnny Walker, saving Mimi and Goma. He says goodbye to Mimi and returns GOMA to her owners, and turns himself into the police—who, not surprisingly, think his story is nuts, write him off as a harmless, senile old man, and send him on his way. Shortly after that Mr. Nakata finds he’s lost his ability to talk to cats, but gained the ability to make it rain fish or leeches, and recognizes that he has a mission for which he must go West and cross a big bridge.
The rest of the story pretty much alternates between chapters narrated by Kafka and chapters which follow the adventures of Mr. Nakata and his friend Mr. Hoshima—a truck driver who gives him a ride and continues on with him to, not surprisingly, Takamatsu. The reader knows these two main characters are related, that the story will climax as they arrive in the same place, but during most of the book the connection is foggy at best. In the meantime we learn that Kafka’s father has been brutally murdered, at the same time as Kafka has an experience/dream in which he ends up covered with blood—which then vanishes without a trace. There’s another fantastic character called Colonel Sanders, a stone which Nakata finally realizes he is seeking which opens up an entrance into another world, a psycho-sexual drama that plays out for Kafka, a magic forest where two young soldiers who ran away from the Japanese army in WWII guard the entrance, and three unusual women—one a runaway herself, one a 50-year old librarian with a tragic past, and another living the life of a man in spite of his partially developed female body. Of yes, “Kafka on the Shore” is a popular song recorded by the librarian when she was young.