The Short Version: A 15-year-old boy called Kafka Tamura runs away from home, setting off possibly to escape from an Oedipal prophecy. Meanwhile, an addled older man named Nakata begins to notice strange things happening around him – or because of him. After a disturbing accident, he too runs away and as the two draw unknowingly closer to one another, reality begins to blur and the spirit world begins to bleed into this one.
The Review: Okay, so now it gets serious. Previous Murakami experiences were beautifully written and gloriously captivating – but this is where the man really starts to show his stuff. You’ve heard about the talking cats, right? Well, here you go.
But the best thing is, even knowing that the weird is going to come in like a ship on a wave, that it just happens. You’re reading along, a relatively ordinary story told in Murakami’s smooth and inviting tone and then a chapter begins with Nakata talking to a cat and the cat responds and it almost takes you a moment to realize that something is out of the ordinary. Because – and I’m not sure I’m going to articulate this terribly well – he doesn’t act like anything is out of the ordinary. This is not to say that other authors attempt to highlight their weirdness or that they try to jazz things up when the weird begins – but when compared to Murakami, they do. It is the most natural thing in the world for Nakata to be conversing with this cat and when the next chapter, back to Kafka, begins… the world of the story has changed and yet it hasn’t, at all. It has always been a world in which cats can talk – you just didn’t know it at first.
The story is almost deceptively simple – and the back cover copy is not entirely accurate. It says that Nakata is drawn towards Kafka but it’s never terribly clear that that’s true. Rather, they both seem like figures caught in the same web of prophecy and of powers far beyond their control. The alternating chapters give both of them just about equal agency, although Nakata’s chapters are sometimes devoted to reports on the strange occurrence that left him a simpleton and to the nocturnal ramblings of his friend/chaperone – and as much as the novel seems like the stories will converge on a particular point, it turns out that they’re asymptotic. The stories are connected, certainly, but that convergence never exactly happens. I say ‘exactly’ because it could be argued that the lines are not asymptotic but rather intertwined, like a double helix. The convergence is happening between them as opposed to never reached by either of them.
Speaking of: this is a book that is chock full of ideas and concepts. I mean, the actual references alone range from pop music like Prince to classical music to Shakespeare to the Greeks to Truffaut to ’50s sci-fi and everything in between – and those are just the actual things referenced on the page. Structurally, the book is so indebted the Greeks it’s not even funny – and everything else after them just builds into this tale. There is a prophecy, Oedipal to the core, and the way the characters grapple with fate is amazing. There’s a lot about free will here – is Nakata acting out of free will or, if not, what’s guiding him? Does a dream constitute actual actions or just desires? How are we defined and what do we allow to define us?
But the ideas never overwhelm the story – it’s a remarkable feat, made even more remarkable by the fact that it seems so effortless. The story sucks you along at the speed of a steady river – not so fast you’re swept off your feet but fast enough that when you step in, you feel it urging you on – and it never gets out of control. Even at the end, as things get truly strange (more of the Greeks, also a little bit of classic horror), Murakami’s calm and steady hand keep things from going pear-shaped. There’s not a lot of explanation, I’ll admit – and dealing with (no spoilers, I’m trying) the end of Nakata’s story especially, I felt like a little more could’ve been explained – but it doesn’t dilute or destroy the power of the story to have things still unknown. In fact, that sort of feels like Murakami’s point, in a way. It’s what he’s been trying to say the whole novel: there are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio… but if you just accept that there are weird things and don’t seek to know why but rather to just embrace & explore them, your life will change. You’ll wake up in a whole new world.
Me, I like that philosophy. (I also just wanted to say that I like the idea/setting of a gorgeous private library – made me think of the Athenaeum in Boston and I felt myself connected to Kafka in that love for such places.)
Rating: 5 out of 5. For the first time in a while, I’ve found myself having to hold back from running out to buy an author’s other work. I enjoyed Norwegian Wood but this… this is something else entirely. Murakami’s deftness with language (and the deftness of the translation, for sure) and the steady hand on the tiller made this one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a while. The book itself is terrific but it is the experience – the calm, I’d say – that settles over you while reading that is what recommends the book. The tumble of a denouement, mysterious and swift, doesn’t lessen the power of the novel and, at the actual end, the book regains that placid but strong beauty. It was a magical experience and not just for the talking cats.