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Woods lovely, dark and deep.

KAFKA ON THE SHORE

BY HARUKI MURAKAMI, TRANSLATED BY PHILIP GABRIEL

NEW YORK: KNOPF. 436 PAGES. $26.

At age fifty-six, with ten books behind him, Japanese author Haruki Murakami is now recognized as one of the world's important novelists. His reputation in the West rests largely on the success of his two longest and most complicated novels--Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997)--both of which display his fluid storytelling ability, his quiet wit, a portraitist's sense of character and place, and a unifying understanding of popular culture and human spirituality. That most readers have a difficult time determining what Murakami's books are about--which is usually a fatal flaw in our message-happy literary marketplace--hardly works against him at all.

Indeed, this murkiness may be essential to his popularity. In a recent review of Kafka on the Shore, John Updike shrewdly postulated that the gorgeous vagueness of Murakami's fiction represents the Shinto side of his sensibility. Whatever its source, it lends this novel, as well as earlier works, mystery and power. The elusiveness also has a strange secondary effect--it removes from the reading experience any trace of authorial ambition. Reading Murakami, unlike other major writers, you never detect his personality or sense the scope of his artistic purposes. Contemporary readers who feel unnerved (or even irritated) by demands of greatness in literature seem comfortable with Murakami's apparent lack of serious intentions. Of course in Murakami's case, things are not as unfocused as they seem.

The Kafka of the title is a fifteen-year-old boy from Tokyo who has run away from his well-to-do father, a famous sculptor whom the boy finds oppressive for reasons we learn later, when we witness the elder's physical and emotional brutality in full. Kafka has an alter ego, or more specifically, a voice in his head, that from time to time offers advice and warnings; this persona is called Crow. Another main character, the tale's comic sideman as it were, is Satoru Nakata, a savant in his sixties who cannot read or write but converses with cats and can predict, or even precipitate, strange events.

As in most of Murakami's novels, the plot here meanders, but underpinning the surreal picaresque are some surprisingly efficient and sturdy narrative structures. The stories of the teenager and the defective sage, set in alternating chapters, slowly come together with a satisfying, if highly magical, inevitability. Both Kafka and Nakata have fled Tokyo for Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four major islands. Once relocated, each then struggles with his sense of existence and purpose in oddly preordained ways: Kafka's father has predicted a general outline to his son's fate, having announced a menacing Oedipal curse, while Nakata's future is foretold by talking cats and otherworldly figures. Murakami, of course, does not play out these prophecies in a clear way, yet they do give shape to the story by way of their lingering implication--the questions and expectations they raise for readers.

The novel is also brazenly comic and lushly sentimental. Kafka meets two considerably older women--one in her twenties and the other, a beautifully preserved icon of female sadness, in her fifties--and beds both of them. The first may be his long-lost sister, the second his long-lost mother (perhaps fulfilling his father's nasty portents, perhaps not--it wouldn't be like Murakami to say). In this scene, the ghostlike older woman weeps after she has slept with Kafka, and he comforts her: "You gently lay a hand on her bare shoulder. You know you should say something, but don't have any idea what. Words have all died in the hollow of time, piling up soundlessly at the dark bottom of a volcanic lake. She leaves behind a damp pillow, wet with her tears. You touch the warmth with your hand and watch the sky outside gradually lighten. Far away a crow caws. The Earth slowly keeps on turning. But beyond any of those details of the real, there are dreams. And everyone's living in them." This may not sound much like a fifteen-year-old--indeed, Kafka never sounds like a fifteen-year-old--but Murakami's narrative is so strong that it overcomes its shortcomings in terms of credibility and voice. Kafka ends up venturing into the deep forest, where he finds a way station of sorts between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. Nakata's adventures, too, have a hand in determining whether the teenager can ever return from this sylvan limbo.

As Kafka waits in a cabin in the woods, we finally see that the motivating force behind Murakami's vagueness is a benign, even friendly, fascination with death. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the likably affect-less hero, Toru Okada, spends hours sitting at the bottom of a dry well; this parallels Kafka's dreamlike lovemaking with a woman approaching death, and the compelling scenes when he is on his own in the forest of spirits. Such narrative interludes are psychic journeys to the borderlines of death, and they are daring, even audacious, if occasionally overwrought. In writing such scenes and in pursuing the lines of aesthetic and philosophical interest that gave rise to them, Murakami seeks to do something that Samuel Beckett, Juan Rulfo, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Julio Cortazar have also attempted: to offer us a vision of death. He suggests what we can know of it, with all its inevitability and its defining power. Unlike the writers named above, however, he is relatively cheerful, and so his dark woods hold little horror. Murakami depicts death as a calm and beautiful vastness, a state contiguous with life and therefore not to be feared. Such a vision, slipped so quietly before us, is a profound spiritual gift.

Vince Passaro is the author of Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel (Simon and Schuster, 2002).
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Title Annotation:Kafka on the Shore; Translated by Philip Gabriel
Author:Passaro, Vince
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Words:964
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