There are occasions when I find that I have to take a break from Fantasy, and I lean toward other fiction in the hopes of broadening my horizons on many levels, most specifically the level of my own writing. So imagine my combined elation and dismay at discovering that Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore is definitely fantasy-adjacent, ripe with magical realism and metaphysical meditations. It is exquisitely written, deeply intriguing, and simply good reading. It is complicated and thought-provoking, and is an altogether outstanding read. Easily one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
As I read through Kafka on the Shore, I realized that I very rarely read work by authors outside of the US or greater British Commonwealth, and I think that’s a tragedy I desperately need to mitigate by making some changes to my to-read list. (Fortunately, I’m currently reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, so I guess I’m already doing pretty well on that front.)
Typically I find that the use of sex as a major plot point to be less-than-entertaining. You might call me prudish, but I don’t think that embarrassment is the source for my general distaste for the strong use of sexuality in literature. Most of the time it just feels like a cheaply-bought thrill. Not so in Kafka on the Shore. It featured as an important part of the story, and despite the fact that the nature of this particular encounter is shocking (and somewhat distasteful to our delicate sensibilities,) it carries tremendous weight with it and advances the tale into its most interesting sequence of all.
I benefitted greatly from reading the perspective of a native Japanese author. The impact of World War II, the atomic bomb, and the martial lobotomy the country suffered at the end of that terrible conflict had a tsunami’s ripple affects on the cultural dialogue, and this story deals very directly with some of those issues. I suspect (I’d say “know” here, but I don’t want to presume anything) that this is the tip of a huge iceberg whose depths plunge far into the cultural fabric of modern Japan. Consumerism, capitalism, repression, expression, death, life, sex, romantic love, filial abandonment and more are themes that poke out their heads in this book, intertwined with characters so foreign and simultaneously relatable that it’s easy to get behind their eyes and ride with them for a time, in a world in which they simply don’t belong.
One of the more wonderful things about this novel is that it raises many questions about events that transpire in the periphery of the tale (and even far off-screen,) but answers almost none of them, leaving the reader to wonder at the connections — if there are connections at all — between seemingly disparate events. Is it aliens? Does blood have something to do with it? Are there two pieces of a single soul split between two bodies? Do the cats know anything? Are the manifestations of consumer icons gods speaking to the humans?
My feeling after putting the book down is that we don’t need to know. It’s certainly interesting to wonder, but knowing any of the answers to the many riddles presented in the story don’t change the final outcome. It’s still just as surreal, relatable, and fascinating. It’s not for the faint of heart, and there’s a somewhat serious content warning (it’s oedipal, just going to put that out there…) but if this sounds like your cup of tea, I highly recommend drinking this one up, and quickly.
Not that it’s going anywhere. I’m very late to this party.