Raining Sardines, Talking Cats

KafkaTo call Kafka On The Shore an imaginative book would be gross understatement. It is wildly, feverishly, outrageously imaginative; a book where bizarre ideas share space with profound thoughts and sublime writing coexists with cheesy humor that this blog wouldn’t publish. (Yes, I can think of at least seven really funny things I’ve rejected – I’ll write a post about it soon. Plus I am disappointed you guys don’t know the difference between reviewer’s license and hyperbole.)

“Well, tell me then , Toro, is there some reason you’re here?”

“There is,” the black cat said. “I thought you might be having a hard time dealing with that stone all alone.”

“You got that right. Definitely. I’m in kind of a fix here.”

“I thought I’d lend you a hand.”

“That would be great,” Hoshino said. “Take a paws in your schedule, eh?”

In other words, Kafka on the Shore is just another Haruki Murakami book. Murakami is a delightfully inventive writer, and Kafka On The Shore brings together all the qualities that’ve made him so popular with audiences the world over. After his “discovery” in the mid-nineties with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami, with his distinctive brand of writing that blurs the boundary between what is real and what is not, has acquired almost cult status in the West. On one level, his books are dense, broody musings on loneliness and love; on another they are racily narrated fantasies laced with generous (tongue-in-cheek) references to pop culture. The dichotomy intrigues, drawing readers into the books. And the books never disappoint: they are dreamy fantasies set in the present, and the author’s overactive imagination ensures that there is never a dull moment, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

Kafka on the Shore is a book about a young boy who calls himself Kakfa (Duh!) (which means crow in Czech, apparently)(Clarification: Kafka means Crow, not Duh!). Kafka, whose mom and sister had abandoned him early on, runs away from home at fifteen to get away from his dad. Kafka is also running away from a prophecy of his dad. (The parallels with Murukami’s short story in the New Yorker are obvious:

“Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning for him. No more, no less,” his father said–or, rather, declared. He spoke coolly but with utter certainty, as he might have in noting that the earth takes a year to revolve around the sun.

) (etcetera: We close parantheses.())

Johnnie WalkerIn another thread in the book, Nakata, a lovable old man who lost his mind in a bizarre World War II incident leaves Tokyo for “somewhere west.” Nakata, who can talk to cats, hitchhikes his way (rather eventfully) to where Kafka is now, propelled by mysterious forces within his mind. He is running towards something, but he is also running away from a gruesome murder that he committed. Or did he?

Kafka ends up at a quaint little family library in a quaint little town. On the way though, he meets a girl who he thinks could be his sister. And at the library, he runs into the following people.

  1. Oshima, the uber-smart library assistant who says mysterious, metaphysical, profound, philosophical things with a straight face. Like so:

“Speaking of contradictions,” Oshima suddenly says, “when I first met you I felt a kind of contradiction in you. You’re seeking something, but at the same time you’re running away for all you’re worth.” [Please nod sagely. There you go, that’s it.]

Oshima is uber-smart, so quoting Yeats ( “In dreams begin responsibility”) and Aristophanes or drawing on Greek Philosophy ( “Cassandra’s curse”) to explain everyday predicaments comes easily to him. As does having a lot of fun at the expense of a couple of poor feminists:

“Yes, may I help you?” Oshima asks her amiably.

“Just to let you know, we are investigating public cultural facilities in the entire country from a woamn’s point of view, looking at ease of use, fair access and other issues,” she says. “Our group is doing a year-long investigation and plans to publish a report on our findings. A large number of women are involved in this project, and the two of us happen to be in charge of this region.”

[…]

“What we’ve concluded is that, unfortunately, this library has several issues which need to be addressed.”

“From the viewpoint of women, is what you’re saying,” Oshima commented.

“Correct, from the viewpoint of women,” the woman answers. She clears her throat.

[…]

“Well, first of all you have no toilet set aside for women. That’s correct, isn’t it?”

‘Yes, that’s right. There’s no women’s toilet in this library. We have one toilet for the use of both men and women.”

“Even if you are a private institution, since you’re open to the public don’t you think – in principle – that you should provide separate toilets for women and men?”

“In principle?” Oshima says.

“Correct. Shared facilities give rise to all sorts of harassment. According to our survey, the majority of women are reluctant to use shared toilets. This is a clear cae of neglect of your female patrons.”

“Neglect…” Oshima says, and makes a face as though he’s swallowed something bitter by mistake He doesn’t much like the sound of the word, it would seem.

“An intentional oversight.”

“Intentional oversight,” he repeats, and gives some thought to this clumsy phrase.

“So what is your reaction to all this?” the woman asks, barely containing her irritation.

“As you can see,” Oshima says, “we’re a very small library. And unfortunately we don’t have the sapce for separate toilets. Naturally it would be better to have separate toilets, but none of our patrons has ever complained. For better or for worse, our library doesn’t get very crowded. If you’d like to pursue this issue of separate toilets further, I suggest you got to the Boeing headquartes inSeattle and addreess the issue of toilets on 747s. A 747’s much bigger than our little library, and much more crowded. As far as I’m aware, all toilets on passenger aircraft are shared by men and women.”

“The tall woman frowns at him severely, her cheekbones jjutting forward and her glasses riding up her nose. “We are not investigating aeroplanes. 747s are beside the point.”

“Wouldn’t toilets in both jets and in our library – in principle – give rise to the same sorts of problems?”

“We are investigating, one by one, public facilities. We’re not here to argue over principles.

“Oshmias’s supple smile never fades during this exchange. “Is that so?” I could have sworn that principles were exactly what we were discussing.”

And so it goes. An exchange that later veers towards a discussion of red herrings, shifting analogies, Aristotle and phallocentric logicical fallacies before it ends with a revelation that would’ve been explosive in any other book. Here, coming after sardines raining and a dog interrupting Nakata’s conversation with a cat to lead him to a man dressed like Johnny Walker (whisky mogul, evil cat eater) who proceeds to eat live cat hearts, it is just another event. Murakami’s world is full of them.

Oshima is the reader’s muse in the book – erudite and unruffled, he “explains” (if you can call bits of tangential loud thinking that) what is going on to both Kafka and us.

2. (etcetera:we get our numbering right).

3. On the bus out of Tokyo, Oshima also meets Sakura, a hot young girl who he thinks could be his sister.Naturally. Kafka and Sakura form a bond on the bus, and later on, Kafka rapes her in his dream. But dreams blur into reality in this book, so one can’t really be sure. Sakura and Kafka carry on a conversation that might explain the preponderance of alarming coincidences in the book.

“Even chance meetings… Are the result of Karma.”

“Right, right,” she says. “But what does it mean?”

“That things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even the in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

4. And finally, Miss Saeki. She is the stately woman with a sad past she won’t discuss, who runs the library that Oshima works in. Kafka, naturally, thinks she could be his mom. There are tantalizing clues that seem to point to the theory – Miss Saeki was a lightning researcher and Kafka’s dad was once struck by lightning. But when Kafka asks her the question, all he gets is something to the effect of “You already know the answer to that.” And he accepts the answer and moves on. Occasionally, Miss Saeki becomes a fifteen year old girl and dons shiny white costumes and goes to Kafka’s room. This confuses Kafka no end, and his discussions with Oshima about Miss Saeki lead to the conclusion that this is probably a “living ghost.” The title of the book – Kafka on the Shore, is also the title of the hit single that Miss Saeki composed when she was young. The lyrics of the song are riddled with symbolism, and Kafka’s sees a lot of parallels between his life and the lyrics. And so on it goes…

Meahwhile, hitchhiking old man Nakata, after causing leeches to fall from the sky, ends up at the same town as Kafka, by sheer chance. Nakata has forgotten first person usage, so conversations with him remind you of conversations between Elaine and Jimmy.

Nakata is sleepy.

Colonel SandersA truck driver who picks him up on the way is intrigued by Nakata and decides to accompany him on his quest for something that also happens to be – by chance – mentioned in Miss Saeki’s hit single.

The truck driver, Hoshino, later encounters a spirit dressed up as Colonel Sanders. Colonel Sanders has a slightly differerent job description here: he is a supernatural pimp, who gets Hoshino a girl that is very adept at quoting Henri Bergson and Hegel. Together, Hoshino and the prostitute find the perfect use for philosopy.

“See, you’re ready to go again,” the girl remarked, slowly seguing into her next set of motions. “Any special reqeusts? Something you’d like me to do? Mr. Sanders asked me to make sure you got everything you wanted.”

“I can’t think of anything special, but could you quote some more of that philosophy stuff? I don’t know why, but it might keep me from coming so quickly. Otherwise, I’ll lose it pretty fast.”

“Let’s see . . . This is fairly old, but how about some Hegel?”

“Whatever.”

[…]

“‘At the same time that “I” am the content of a relation, “I” am also that which does the relating.'”

The hilarious encounters between Sanders and Hoshino are the funniest parts of the book, with Murakami at his biting best.

“Listen – God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan God’s always been a kind of flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Dougnal MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person. So after 1946 he wasn’t God anymore. That’s what Japanese gods are like – they can be tweaked and adjusted. Some American chomping on a cheap pipe gives the order and presto change-o – God’s no longer God. A very postmodern kind of thing. if you think God’s there, He is. If you don’t, He isn’t. And if that’s what God’s like I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Typical of Murakami, when the denoument comes (and goes), it leaves you with more questions than answers. Some philosophical, some practical. (“Was there a message in all this?” “What is he trying to say?” “Was Miss Saeki Kafka’s mom?”). What is the point, the overarching explanation that ties it all up? How could Hoshino start talking to cats? Was the stone the entrance to heaven? What is the significance of the paradise like land suspended between two worlds? Is this a fable? Or like a reviewer claims, is the whole book about giving shape to internal thoughts of the characters?

But then, a little bit of thought provides the answer: It doesn’t matter. There is so much fun to be had when reading the book, and some more fun thinking about all the questions, and that could very well be the whole point.

New York Times Featured Author Profile.

8 thoughts on “Raining Sardines, Talking Cats”

  1. and here was i thinking that demanding unisex bathrooms was neo-feminist, or watever they label it. other than space, me thinks they save a lot of embarrassment too :).

  2. I’ve lost hope of catching up with you… I just bought the New Yorker DVDs, thanks to you…Slow down, pal. But, in a way, it’s nice to outsource the leg work, and spend money on sure bets. Great post.

  3. Sudha: My apologies for your comments getting eaten by the spambot at this site. Hopefully, it’s all fixed now…

    Doz: See, you aren’t the only one.

  4. May be it’s too late to comment on this post, but why bother. As Nakata says, if it is open, it has to be closed. Picked up this book based on your review. After finishing it, I was like “that’s it?”. Lot of interesting passages and cheesy humour, but different from any other book I have ever read. One of my favorites was the line of Col. Sanders.

    Col. Sanders has just pimped for Hoshino. Hoshino asks him, why are you dressed like Col. Sanders and Sanders replies, “I wanted to become Mickey Mouse, but Disney had copyright issues”. Hoshino goes, “Also, I wouldn’t have wanted Mickey Mouse to pimp for me”.

    Reading Murakami first time is a different experience. He writes well, all the ingredients of the novel is there, but everything seems to be hanging in space. Almost as if he is playing with you.

  5. Chenthil,

    Funny little book, wasn’t it? Very frustrating at times, because you don’t know where it is headed. And into the last hundred pages or so, I knew what was coming – I was mentally preparing myself for a lot of loose ends.

    If you go to the Murakami forums, they discuss his books like they were the religious text from an era gone by: hidden meanings, metaphysical undertones and so on. Maybe, but I think in Murakami’s case the ride is more important than where he is taking you. Have you read his short stories? The New Yorker features them regularly, and the short stories are exactly what you would expect from him: whacky, enjoyable and somewhat pointless 🙂

  6. Hey Karthik,

    I just finished reading Kafka on the shore yesterday. As most of us, I turned to internet to checkout if there was some sense behind the madness, maybe I was missing a point. As one of the commentators said, It seemed to me as if author was playing with me. Nyway amongst of the reviews and analysis on the web, I enjoyed reading, and liked your’s the best. You don’t devolve into trying to explain the unexplainable, but at the same time are right to point out that the book is a fun read. I agree. May be thats the point of it. Its a dream, elements of it allude to various physical, nonphysical aspects of existance.. but on whole there is not neccesarily a bigger picture. Its a fun read, thats that.

    Moiz

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