I feel I should update this blog with something. I finished reading a book, which is an accomplishment by my standards, and so perhaps I should review it? I don't want this blog to go stale, so yes, I will review it (no pictures for this post).
Can I really comment on style if the book is translated from another language? If I'm talking about style, I would be addressing the translater, Philip Gabriel, and then I'd easily be straying from the point. No, I have to address structure, then I'd be getting to the guts of the original author (I'm sure he wouldn't mind, he seems to have plenty of fascination with guts and intestines in the story). So let's jump straight in the dirt and see what we can flesh out.
I happen to notice this book in a bookstore simply by its cover, specifically the word "Kafka", but when I read the blurb on the back I knew right away I would want to read it. I love anything with surrealism and mysterious symbolism. Even if this book has nothing to do with Franz Kafka, I figured it shouldn't be an accident that Murakami used his name in the title. In reading the book I find out he used the name for two specific reasons: firstly because the protagonist is a fan of Franz Kafka, secondly because "Kafka" is the Czech word for "Crow", and he wants to be strong and independent, like a crow. There is a mysterious imaginary friend called "the boy named Crow" who plays a role in the overall mythology of this world. Among the specific reasons, the protagonist, who has run away from home on his 15th birthday, renames himself "Kafka", which plays a significant part in the big coincidence later on, that is the resemblance to the fictional 60's pop-song "Kafka on the Shore". I would like to mention briefly in regards to the translation; the lyrics of this song are laid out in full at one point and it is strange - to me - that they have rhythm and rhyme. I have to wonder how much alteration took place in the translating to achieve that.
However, on to the structure, the story is an overall modern retelling of Oedipus Rex. I didn't have to figure this out myself, though, the book lays it all out for me. It even explains the whole play in detail! But there is a twist, not only does Kafka sleep with his mother, but with his (foster) sister too! I didn't have to figure out that twist myself, the characters explained all this in the story as well. Here begins my complaint. The book is really fat. Too much fat! It could have been slimmed down about 20% without the unnecessary repetition or the drawling explanations of its own references. There's even a point where a character explains Chekhov's Gun! Is it supposed to be clever or 4th-wall breaking to point out your own plot devices? I don't know. But this is the extent of my complaining, this book may be fat but it's not grossly obese. Heck even I learned a couple new things:
"...It's a labyrinth. Do you know where the idea of a labyrinth first came from?"
I shake my head.
"It was the ancient Mesopotamian's. They pulled out animal intestines - sometimes human intestines, I expect - and used the shape to predict the future. They admired the complex shape of intestines. So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside."
Which brings me to the guts. I mean of the story. This is the part of the book I liked. Every alternating chapter switches back and forth between the two lead characters, with the exception of the introduction and another small interlude titled "The Boy Named Crow". Firstly you have Kafka Tamura, the run-away 15 year old kid, told in first-person narrative. There are plenty of hormonal-angst-driven monologues and strange existential observations, including the occasional erotic fantasy. Most of all, Kafka is just describing his actions. He is well introverted, even to the reader, which is somehow alienating and engaging at the same time. It's in Kafka's chapters I find the most frustration as I've explained above. Secondly there is Mr Nakata, first introduced through uncovered military reports about a strange event that happened during World War II. Once we get into the actual narrative, when Nakata is an old man in retirement, the story is told in third-person. Later in the novel we are not just limited to the point of view to Nakata, but to other supporting characters as well. I find these chapters are the most exciting to read, for example we are introduced to Nakata when he is speaking to a cat, investigating another missing cat. The most interesting thing I find about Nakata, and later his accomplice, Hoshino, is that they are two lovable dunces, yet somehow not subdued to an Idiot Plot. They might say and think a bunch of stupid things, but somehow manage, often thanks to mysterious outside influences, to make all the right moves and advance the story where it needs to go.
Speaking of mysterious outside influences, it's time I start to mention David Lynch. I can not say if either Murakami or David Lynch bear any influence on each other, but there is definitely a resemblance between their stories. It's in these stories we find an access to a "hidden" world and a cast of mysterious conceptual characters, bearing influence on our own world and forcing us to confront events that we may not fully understand. I'm thinking of the David Lynch characters like the bald creepy guy from Lost Highway, the cowboy from Mulholland Drive, Bob and a whole cast of spirits from Twin Peaks or those strange rabbits from Inland Empire. Likewise, Murakami revels in these strange characters and hidden worlds. The primary difference, I've noticed, is that David Lynch will use these characters to throw a curve-ball and twist the story's conclusion to completely unforeseen locations. Places we were never invited or dared to tread, and they tend to be unforgiving and merciless. Murakami, on the other hand, uses his mysterious characters to eventually set things right, only after a long way into the story we have figured out that there are many things wrong in the first place. I could summarise by saying that Murakami sets things right, and David Lynch sets things wrong.
Perhaps this book is a good companion to anyone who is a fan of Lost. Apart from when the nameless villain explains he is "in limbo", something the Lost creators militantly denied, both stories are equally referential to outside-sources and mysterious events or characters described as "concepts". The whole mythology of these worlds are fully fleshed out, yet not completely explained. If I ever get around to it, I should get myself into a regular schedule of watching Lost, at least one episode per night.
That's it for the review for now. I have tried not to give away too many things about what happens in the story, I mainly just wanted to touch on the essential impressions it has made on me. I'm currently caught up in the TV show, The Wire, and it has sucked up all my concentration for the time being. I'd like to leave this post with one last passage from the book, which resonated with me in a special way. If I were to ask myself where my point was, it would have been around when I was 12-13 years old, maybe younger.
Oshima reaches out and lays a hand on my knee in a totally natural gesture. "Kafka, in everybody's life there's a point of no return. And in very few cases, a point where you can't go forward any more. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That's how we survive."