I recently read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, translated by Philip Gabriel. At least I think I did. After reading it only once, I’m wondering if the entire book isn’t a metaphor for life or at least a metaphor for the literary device itself. In either case, the novel and its plot may or may not exist for all of us and it certainly might not have its given name.
The first Murakami book I read was A Wild Sheep Chase. It was, more or less, assigned to me since I was teaching someone else’s syllabus for a literature class. I fell in love with the prose and the abstract world that Murakami created. In both books, mythical characters are created in a fantasy landscape grounded in our actual world. In this respect, Murakami catches us off guard since our expectations of normalcy start to be met, and then suddenly aren’t.
Characters remain unnamed, a short hand for the common, everyman, and animals have more skills than we witness in our physical lives. It isn’t clear that each character, named or unnamed, actually exists within the sphere of the book. In Kafka on the Shore, their expectations, journeys and desire overlap enough that they could be alter egos for the same character.
Metaphors themselves are directly discussed throughout the book. In the final chapter, one character says kindly to the title’s namesake, “The world is a metaphor, Kafka Tamura” and then adds, “But for you and me this library alone is no metaphor. It’s always just this library. I want to make sure we understand that.” I can’t help but think not only of Kafka’s writing, but also Borges’ famous libraries.
The power of books, the ability of individuals to navigate and command their destinies, the condensed nature of the past, present and future, and questions about a higher power pull this text out of a fictional world and into our own. These are, after all, our own preoccupations.
I always tell my students that writing is one part of a dialogue between writers and readers. To help continue a conversation about this book, I’d like to thank my friend Robin for suggesting that we read it together.
Do you read books with friends or family members?