Jan 2, 2007

I Heart Haruki Murakami

It's that time again! The time where I talk about books!
So, there are lots of writers out there- writers like Borges, Calvino, Dick, Garcia Marquez, etc., who wave around a bunch of enigmatic vaugely metaphorical/mystical/symbolic/mythic stuff and go "Oooooh, look how mysteriously literary I am!" I'm a total sucker for this stuff.
"Yes, Mr. Borges, tell me more about how mysterious and metaphorical labyrinths and mirrors are! Ooooh esoteric literary references! Hooray!" I don't know why, but I lap this stuff up insatiably. Maybe it's the result of what happens when a kid who read lots of horror, sci-fi and fantasy (ok, I still read all that) grows up and wants to that sort of thing "literaturified" or something.
Anyway, the point is I lap up the "Look how enigmatic I am!" subgenre. It's brain candy. One of the best writers of this sort is Haruki Murakami (or Murakami Haruki, if you want to go with the Japanese name ordering) whose Kafka on the Shore I just finished.
Compared to Murakami's "big" novel The Wine-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the shore is downright straightforward. Murakami does't spell out what's going on, but it's eminently possible to figure out what's happening if you think about it, to "get" the novel. It's basically the tale of Oedipus, but with some sister-shagging and astral projection thrown in for good measure.
The basic story is that a fifteen year old boy- Kafka Tamura, whose real given name we never learn, runs away from home to escape a prophecy from his father. The prophecy is that he will kill his father, and sleep with both his mother and sister.
A secondary bit of plot concerns an old man named Nakata, who, when he was a child in WWII, lapsed into a coma for several days and came out with no memories, losing even the ability to read. As an old man, Nakata still hasn't regained literacy, but has the mysterious ability to speak with cats. The two stories run side by side for the length of the novel, eventually meeting up with each other towards the end. I can't really say what happens, as that would give far too much away.
I can say, though, that as weird and fantastical as Murakami's fiction is, I can't help but look for some sort of "system" behind it. For instance, there are spirits in Kafka on the Shore. As someone who reads a lot of SF, I think to myself "what is the nature of these spirits? How do they work? What do they want? How do they interact with the 'real' world?" I don't know if Murakami has all the answers to these questions or not when he constructs his fictional worlds, but I can't help but think- and subsequently draw conclusions from -Murakami's fictional world. I did the same thing with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, trying to puzzle out a sense of workability from the book's metaphysics. I can't help but do this.
Even if there's no concrete answers to any of the questions raised in Murakami's fiction, I can't help but think that he'd be pleased to know that his readers are thinking about things like this. Even if other readers came to different conclusions about his work, I don't think he'd mind. I recall reading an interview with him a while back (unfortunately, I don't recall where) and he said that his fiction was a series of riddles where all together they make an answer. I think that's actually a fairly interesting idea- the idea that a series of symbols, representation, questions, etc., is something in and of itself, not something that merely leads to an answer.
One thing that I noticed in Kafka on the Shore was the fact that the main character ends up sleeping with his sister, Sakura. In the Oedipus cycle, Oedipus' sister is Antigone, and of course she loves him dearly, though they do not ever fuck. I wondered, while reading the book, if Sakura was supposed to be a sort of stand in for Antigone. In the play Antigone she fairly clearly represents family love and practicality, pragmatism and earthly logic. I wondered, while reading Kafka on the Shore, if the Sakura character was supposed to be Antigone.
Certainly Sakura shares Antigone's practicality love for her brother (though Sophecles didn't include handjobs). I think Murakami did intend a comparison, and I think such an equation between Sakura and Antigone is one of the book's many hidden bits that it takes some thinking and research to get to. I imagine there are countless others that I didn't get at all.
Speaking of which, I'm wondering how much of the weird stuff in the books is reference to Shinto folklore or Japanese mythology. I have the suspiscion that a more thorough understading of such would shed a fair amount of light on Murakami's references and metaphore. I'm eager to research this, both for better understanding of Japanese literature, and for cultural context in general.
My incomplete knowledge of Murakami's tapestry, though, did not hinder my enjoyment of the novel. In fact, I read almost the entire second half yesterday in one sitting. Kafka on the Shore is a pleasurable puzzle box of a book, a sort of upbeat David Lynch type narrative. I recommend it.
Next up- A collection of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's works- and my edition just happens to have an intro by Mr. Murakami Haruki

EDIT: I can't believe I did that. I missattributed the Oedipus Cycle to Aristophanes, not Sophecles! And I call myself a bibliophile! Oh, the shame, the shame! My only option is seppuku.


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

I just bought 'Kafka on the Shore' today! so I didn't read your post. You spoiler. You biblio spoiler.


Joseph said...

Don't worry, Joe's post doesn't really spoil anything. I mean, it tells you stuff that you didn't know at the beginning of the book, but I don't remember there being any point reading the book where I said "Wow! That was a total surprise! I sure didn't expect that to happen, Mr. Murakami!" Granted, that's mostly because I don't talk to myself when I read. But it's also because it's not really that kind of book.

Re: your review, Joe. I found Kafka much easier to follow than Wind-Up, as well. I know that Wind-Up was originally serialized, and I don't know about Kafka. If it wasn't, that might be part of it -- more coherent plotline. I also remember being somewhat mystified by the writing style -- it was very sparse, and a lot of the dialog seemed very artificial and stark. I was kind of curious if that was an artifact of its translation, or if that's actually how Murakami writes (or if that's considered good writing style for Japanese novels). I dunno, and know no native Japanese speakers to ask. Ah, well.

SonicLlama said...

I remember thinking that about the language, too. Basically, the book uses lots and lots of commonplace English idioms. I know that when stuff is translated from Japanese to English and vise versa there is lots of stuff that doesn't go through literally, so the translator finds the "cultural equivalent" of whatever the speaker or author is saying. Idioms are a big problem here. For example, in Japanese when two people meet for the first time they ususally say "please be kind to me" (or someting to that effect, I don't really know) and it gets translated as "nice to meet you."
This is all sensical and such, but I think that the Translator of Kafka on the Shore might have gone a little overboard on finding cultural equivalents and suitable idioms.
Either that, or Murakami got himself one of those handy little Englsih idiom dictionaries like the ones my company sells, and nust coulndn't wait to use as many as he possibly could.