Psychic prostitutes, paranormal adventures in parallel worlds, smooth-talking animals: Murakami rolls them out in his novels in deadpan prose that seems to shrug and say, ‘Look, this is no big deal.’ This is what his millions of admirers love and why Internet chatrooms around the English-speaking world have been buzzing for months with the conversation of fans impatient for Philip Gabriel’s translation of Kafka on the Shore.
Murakami is often said to speak to today’s disengaged youth, and it isn’t hard to see why. His kind of alienation is without grumpiness or egotism. His protagonists are acutely aware of their aloneness in this universe, yet never lose their humanity. Detached but not embittered, they make friends and pick up travelling companions easily. They may be disturbed or damaged but are none the less loveable. Experience isolates them but still they want to talk, often by telling long stories. Fortunately most of Murakami’s characters are also good listeners.
As in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the narrative of Kafka on the Shore moves between the real and unreal. A fifteen-year-old boy runs away from his father’s home in Tokyo and begins a journey on which he will fulfil an Oedipal prophecy. His mother and sister disappeared when he was small and he believes he may find them. He heads for Shikoku, where he finds refuge in a private library and names himself Kafka Tamura. He is taken in by two librarians, the androgynous Oshima, who becomes his guide and confidant, and Miss Saeki, who may or may not be his mother.
In a parallel narrative, an old man named Nakata also leaves Tokyo. A mysterious incident during a childhood mushroom-picking trip caused him to lose his memory and the ability to think in abstract terms. He gained, however, the gift of being able to talk to cats. When we meet him in Tokyo he is searching for a lost cat. The mystery is solved by way of new and stranger mysteries involving a sinister cat-snatcher named Johnnie Walker and rainstorms of fish and leeches over Tokyo. Soon Nakata is also on a journey toward Shikoku.
Disappearing people – mostly women – are a feature of Murakami’s novels. Though they may be lost irretrievably to this world, we learn that they are still out there, trapped somehow between existence and non-existence, leading their lives if only in the dreams of those left behind. They remain forever out of reach as their loved ones chase and stumble after them, through reality and unreality, until we are not sure who is missing and who is found. The search is everything, even when the characters are not sure why or where they are looking. In this novel, myth and mystery lead them. Sometimes the force of the search is beyond their understanding: ‘Without a word, Nakata stood up. No one, not even himself, could have stopped him.’
If what the characters seek ultimately is peace of mind – relief from the journey – they find this in music. From truck driver to erudite librarian, they listen to classical music and they talk about it at length. The novel’s title is the name of a song written by the young Miss Saeki. Even Mimi, an eloquent Siamese cat, reveals that she knows a thing or two about opera.
In a plot that seems to invent itself as it goes along, questions multiply and answers are few. The first half of the book satisfies more than the second, where the two narrative strands have to meet and some of Murakami’s playful inventiveness is lost under the strain. The female characters also fail to convince entirely. Murakami’s women tend to be ethereal or wacky, sometimes both. They make colourful companions to the consciously drab male narrators. The women in Kafka on the Shore are distant, only coming into focus when satisfying the men’s sexual desires (whether in dreams or in reality). They do this with a quiet readiness that is hard to believe in when they don’t do very much else. The Hegel-quoting prostitute is a classic Murakami creation, but what is the point of the whole digression that leads to her? A couple of clichéd feminists also make an awkward intrusion that seems to take us nowhere.
But the real joy of reading a Murakami novel is catching the ideas he lobs at you – big, bouncing balls of weirdness that you reach out for without knowing what you are to do with them. In Kafka on the Shore, I’m not convinced that Murakami always knows what to do with them either, but perhaps that is not the point. Behind this feat of imagination lies a great puzzle and you know that the answer, if only you can get to it, will be beautiful in its simplicity.