Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura has a bad relationship with Koichi, his sculptor father, and his mother left with his sister when he was four. The insensitive Koichi has told the boy that one day he will have sex with both his mother and sister, a prophecy tainting his desire to find them. Kafka runs away from home, and Murakami alternates his story with that of Satoru Nakata, an elderly man from the same Tokyo neighborhood. Nakata has lost his memory and the ability to read and write following a mysterious accident when he was a schoolboy in 1944. He lives on a government subsidy and the money he makes from finding lost cats, with which he can communicate much better than with humans. Nakata is an extreme example of Murakami’s patented passive protagonists. He simply accepts what life offers, enjoying its simple pleasures.
Kafka makes his way to Takamutsu on the island of Shikoku and to the Komura Memorial Library, where a wealthy man’s collection resides. He meets Oshima, a library assistant, and Miss Saeki, the library director. She was once famous for composing and singing a popular song, “Kafka on the Shore,” but retreated from the world following the death of her lover, the son of the Komura family. Kafka becomes Oshima’s assistant in exchange for room and board and finds himself visited by the spirit of the younger Miss Saeki, whom he suspects may be his mother. He also meets Sakura, a young hairdresser, and is torn between wanting to have sex with her and wanting her to be his lost sister. Kafka and Oshima discuss the Oedipal nature of his quandary.
Nakata flees Tokyo after a psychopath calling himself Johnnie Walker, actually Kafka’s father, forces the old man to kill him. Nakata makes his way to Takamutsu, site of his accident, with the help of Hoshino, a young truck driver. There, his and Kafka’s destinies overlap. The characters are similar in their reliance upon daily routines to give the impression of order in a disorderly world.
Kafka on the Shore is another of Murakami’s quest novels, with neither protagonist truly understanding what they are seeking. Kafka, Nakata, Oshima, Miss Saeki, and Hoshino resemble each other in being incomplete. The sexually ambiguous Oshima tells Kafka about the Greek belief that all people are searching for their missing halves. Murakami uses quests to explore such themes as individual freedom and the individual’s responsibility to a larger good.
Kafka on the Shore is one of Murakami’s most whimsical novels, with several talking cats—or at least cats who talk to Nakata. Hoshino meets a metaphysical construct taking the form of Colonel Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken symbol, and battles a creature out of a science-fiction film. Nakata, who has the power to make fish rain from the sky, discovers he is seeking an entrance stone mentioned in Miss Saeki’s song. As with Latin American Magical Realism, these fairy-tale elements seem logical within the context of the novel. More important, Murakami uses whimsy to delineate character and reveal themes.
The usual frequent references to Western arts appear throughout Kafka on the Shore. Kafka listens to such popular music acts as Radiohead to maintain his sanity. Kafka renames himself because of his admiration for Franz Kafka’s short story “In der Strafkolonie” (1919; “In the Penal Colony,” 1941). The novel’s fantastical qualities resemble those in Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights (1850), a rare edition of which Kafka reads at the library. Murakami departs from his usual practice by having Kafka read and discuss Japanese literature: Kof (1908; The Miner, 1988) by Soseki Natsume. The magic powers of the arts are illustrated when Hoshino, a bit of a slacker, is transformed by hearing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Archduke Trio (1810-1811) in a coffee bar.
With its allusions, libraries, librarians, and cats, Kafka on the Shore recalls other Murakami novels. Additional similarities include Kafka’s retreating to a mountain...
(The entire section is 1,067 words.)