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As the Crow Flies

Reviewed by Steven Moore
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW06

KAFKA ON THE SHORE •

By Haruki Murakami.

Translated from the Japanese. By Philip Gabriel


(Jacket Art From "kafka On The Shore")

Knopf. 436 pp. $25.95

If bizarre things are happening in Japan, then there must be a new novel by Haruki Murakami. America's favorite Japanese novelist could publish this anonymously, and his fans would instantly recognize it as his. And for first-time readers, Kafka on the Shore is an excellent demonstration of why he's deservedly famous, both here and in his native land. He writes uncanny, philosophical, postmodern fiction that's actually fun to read; he's a more serious Tom Robbins, a less dense Thomas Pynchon. Like those two, he mixes high and low culture, especially ours: Two of his novels are named after Western pop songs ("Dance Dance Dance" and "Norwegian Wood"), and his characters are more likely to see a film by Truffaut than one by Kurosawa. In this new novel, characters may occasionally discuss The Tale of Genji and the novels of Natsume Soseki, but the presiding influences are Plato, Sophocles and, as the title indicates, Franz Kafka.

It would be easy to make this novel sound goofy: There are talking cats, sudden downpours of fish and leeches, a ghost that takes the form of Col. Sanders pimping in a back alley of Takamatsu, another character who dresses up as the Johnnie Walker whiskey icon and collects the souls of cats for a magic flute, a gorgeous prostitute who quotes Henri Bergson and Hegel, and an "entrance stone" to another dimension. It would be just as easy to make the novel sound ponderous: There are many discussions of Greek tragedy, Plato's myth about the origin of the sexes, predestination, various metaphysical systems, musicology, the nature of symbolism and metaphor, the ways of Buddha and the Tao, and grim memories of atrocities committed during World War II. The wonderful thing is the mash-up Murakami creates from this disparate material, resulting in a novel that is intellectually profound but feels "like an Indiana Jones movie or something," as one character aptly notes.

Or something. The novel consists of two parallel narratives told in alternating chapters. One features a bright but unhappy 15-year-old boy named "Kafka" Tamura -- he adopted the name partly because he likes his fiction but also because "Kafka" is Czech for "crow," with whose solitary nature he identifies -- who runs away from home because of an Oedipal foreboding that he will murder his father and sleep with his mother. (His mother abandoned him at age 4, and he hasn't seen her or his older sister since.) He leaves Tokyo for the southern island of Shikoku and spends most of his time at a private library run by a 21-year-old "hemophiliac of undetermined sex" named Oshima and a mysterious, elegant woman named Miss Saeki, old enough to be his mother. Both of them play key roles in helping the runaway find himself and come to terms with his dark destiny.

The other narrative deals with a retarded, illiterate man in his sixties named Satoru Nakata, who as a child underwent an inexplicable experience during World War II that erased his memory and stunted his intellectual growth. In recompense for that loss, however, he has the ability to communicate with cats and control the weather. (He's the one responsible for those downpours.) He gets involved with the cat-soul collector and commits an act that forces him to flee Tokyo. He hooks up with a truck driver named Hoshino -- just a regular guy who favors aloha shirts, Ray-Bans and a Chunichi Dragons baseball cap -- who agrees to help the old guy. They too make their way to Shikoku on a kind of metaphysical quest for an "entrance stone" that Nakata must open and close. As another character says (this is a very self-conscious text, frequently commenting on itself), it's "like some film noir science-fiction flick."

On one level, the novel is about a 15-year-old boy's rite of passage into the adult world, but on a larger level it's a meditation on Plato's notion (voiced in the "Symposium," as Oshima explains to both Kafka and the reader) that each of us is looking for a soul mate to complete us. Hoshino finds one in Nakata, who reminds him of a dim-witted but devoted disciple of the Buddha, but who also fills in for a beloved grandfather. Kafka finds one in Miss Saeki, who appears to him in dreams both as the 15-year-old girl she once was and at her present age. And though Kafka and Nakata never meet, their parallel actions complement each other on a metaphysical plane. Hermaphroditic Oshima -- the most self-possessed and knowledgeable character in the novel -- exemplifies the original state that Plato said the soul enjoyed before it was split into halves.

Murakami's spin on this theme and the Oedipus myth is daringly original and compulsively readable, enabled by Philip Gabriel's wonderfully fluent translation. Kafka on the Shore is warmly recommended; read it to your cat. •

Steven Moore, the author of several books and essays on contemporary fiction, is writing a history of the novel.


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