Monday, 15 October 2012

Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

The darkness which clings to every personality is the door into the unconscious and the gateway of dreams, from which those two twilight figures, the shadow and the anima, step into our nightly visions or, remaining invisible, take possession of our ego-consciousness.”  Carl Jung

I was a latecomer to the phenomenon of Haruki Murakami. This is only the second of his books I have read. And yet I have already started to wonder how much more there is to be drawn from the particular well he draws his water from. He swims in the sea of Jungian archetypes, trusting that the unconscious has a message for us.

The problem with the idea of the collective unconscious is that it can, no matter how strange or bizarre its denizens appear, be strewn with cliches, the collective phrases and ideas worn of the friction and risk that makes great literature.

If that seems a very negative opening it is probably because his work has been built up to such an extent that it is set up to disappoint. This is not a bad book. It is one which I enjoyed reading, but not without a vague sense of dissatisfaction which grew towards the end, when the doorway into the new age section of the library seemed to have opened up before me.

The main character in the book is Kafka Tamura, a fifteen year old boy who loves the gym and the library. He often turns for advice to a daemon who appears from time to time, an older boy called Crow. (Crow in Czech is Kafka.) He runs away from home, meets an older girl on the bus and then finds a private library which increasingly becomes a refuge for him. Another strand of the story involves a group of Japanese schoolchildren who collapse in a flat, circular clearing in the woods above their town. All of them wake up with little effect bar one, Nakata who takes much longer to wake and seems to have had his consciousness wiped clean by the incident. Although his ability to use human language remains diminished, he has become able to talk to cats. Circling a small area of Tokyo, he uses his skill to find lost cats. The story of a strange catnapping draws him slowly into playing a part in Kafka's story.

As with Hardboiled Wonderland this book has many strengths and long sustained sections which show the potential of his dreamlike fantasy to reflect our journeys towards inner meaning. Murakami grounds all this with a kind of blank unreflective realism, anchoring us with brand names and music and books. All the time, though we read with a sense that these often mundane meetings and conversations have echoes in myth and fable. Oshima, the junior librarian in the private library in which Kafka finds refuge is neither man nor woman. I thought of Tiresias, known from myth and a major character in The Waste Land. Like Eliot, Murakami mixes myth and mundanity and a kind of blankness, resisting many readings. However he is looser and finally less satisfying than Eliot. But so is 99% of classic literature, let alone the morass.

In the first few pages a highlighted passage locates the arena of the book firmly within the subconscious:  "Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing direction. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so that the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step. There's no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverised bones." The tension arising from death is in there too, and death plays a big part in the novel. Jung used the idea of a psychopomp, an archetype who in many myths brought souls to the afterlife, to indicate one who mediated between the conscious and unconscious minds.

The story of Nakata begins with contemporaneous reports of the incident from military papers. There are echoes of the alien abduction myth.  "The children had collapsed in an odd, flat, open space in the woods where it looked like all the trees had been neatly removed, with autumn sunlight shining down brightly." The fact that the adult who is with the children isn't affected is also a classic trope of myth and fantasy, some doors of perception closing with puberty as others open: "the children weren't looking at what we could see, but at something we couldn't." The Jungian connection is emphasised later in the book when the teacher writes a letter to the psychiatrist who is called in by the army to investigate the incident. "I've always been impressed by your insights, and I find the world view that runs through all of your publications very convincing - namely that as individuals each of us is extremely isolated, while at the same time we are all linked by a prototypical memory."

Freud also has his place in the plot development. Kafka doesn't know who his mother is, she left when he was four. When he meets the woman who runs the library, Miss Saeki he notes: "She makes a strong impression on me, making me feel wistful and nostalgic. Wouldn't it be great if this were my mother? But I think the same thing every time I run across a charming, middle-aged woman." He also falls in love with her. The girl he meets on the coach he imagines could be his sister, who his mother took with her. We also get the parricidal desires of the Oedipus Complex. Kafka is running away as he fears he will kill his father. Later in the book Kafka notes the way he went straight to where Miss Saeki worked was "like fate reeling me in.""Like the plot of a Greek tragedy," Oshima says."

Death, too, haunts the book: "I stare at this ceaseless rushing crowd and imagine a time a hundred years from now. In a hundred years everybody here - me included - will have disappeared from the face of the earth and turned into ashes and dust. A weird thought, but everything in front of me begins to seem unreal, as if a gust of wind could blow it all away." There are a series of entrances into 'other' spaces and there is a sense at times of having entered death's waiting room. The whole book is a psychodrama, actualising the primal struggle.

One aspect that Murakami uses is to make references to books, music etc and to explicate these so these explications can act as a kind of Greek chorus to the book, giving us hints as to what is happening. Books and stories feel as real if not more so to Kafka. "I head off to the reading room and back to The Arabian Nights. As always, once I settle down and start flipping pages, I can't stop. The Burton edition has all the stories I remember reading as a child, but they're longer, with more episodes and plot twists, and so much more absorbing that it's hard to believe they're the same. They're full of obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes. Like the genie in the bottle they have this sort of vital, living sense of play, of freedom, that common sense can't keep bottled up. I love it and can't let go. Compared to those faceless hordes of people rushing through the train station, these crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago are, at least to me, much more real."

He also discusses books with Oshima, including one by that Czech writer who gave him his name. "I think that what Kafka does is give a purely mechanical explanation of that complex machine in the story, as a sort of substitute for explaining the situation we're in."(re: In the Penal Colony)  This idea that the meaning in a book can be very askance to the story is also posited in a discussion of Soseki's The Miner (a book I am completely unaware of). "It's as if not really knowing what he's getting at is the part that stays with you."

The book seems to point to the dangers of a world where people act in concert, without acknowledging their inner selves. There seems to be a haunting by the second world war, highlighted by the appearance of two soldiers who went missing during WW2 and still live in the deep woods, untouched by time. The violence within us has to be acknowledged, but we also need to overcome it. It is only by exploring our capabilities in our imagination that we can begin to make informed decisions. "It's all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It's just as Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibility. Turn this on its head and you could say that where there's no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise. Just as we see with Eichmann."

 Is it the artists role to imagine these dreams for us? Can dreams be stopped anyway? "You're afraid of imagination. And even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the responsibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep and dreams are part of sleep. When you're awake you can suppress imagination. But you can't suppress dreams." Is the final message that of Jung's; that the rational mind is capable of greater evils than the subconscious, the irrational, and that we must welcome imagination and the irrational into our lives.

Kafka has to go through a kind of obliteration of the self in order to make himself more whole. "Alone in such a dense forest, the person called me feels empty, horribly empty. Oshima once used the term "hollow men". Well that's what I've become. There's a void inside me, a blank that's slowly expanding, devouring what's left of who I am. I can hear it happening. I'm totally lost, my identity dying. there's no direction where I am, no sky, no ground."  We're back again to the sandstorm mentioned above, and the only thing to do is to keep going. At another point Oshima talks of the source of the word Labyrinth: ""The idea of a labyrinth...came from" "the ancient Mesopotamians. 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 of the labyrinth is within you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside.""

At this stage I am becoming lost in a labyrinth of my own making, possibly veering into complete incoherence. I have written this post in fits and starts over the past couple of weeks while the real world was involved in stirring up one of these sandstorms through which we can only walk step by step. I'm going to take this opportunity to press the excrete publish button. I hope that there is some sense lurking here somewhere amoung the nonsense. Despite being underwhelmed at times there is enough to tempt me to try another Murakami. Which one should I try? Hopefully I'll manage a more coherent response next time!


  1. Although a fan of Murakami, I think this is a very weak novel. It's a rehash of all his previous stuff and offers nothing new. I get the sense he's mining the same seam over and over and it's getting stale.

    His best work, by a mile, is The WInd-Up Bird Chronicle. It really is a masterwork.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I think my next visit to planet Murakami will be The Wind Up Bird Chronicles. It was a glowing review of that that made me aware of him in the first place.

  3. Wonderful review, Séamus. Even if this novel didn't work for me at all, and I'm not learned in the works of Jung and Freud, I admire the ideas you get out of it. They said HM's other masterpiece was The Wind-Up Chronicle but I haven't finished it after many attempts. There are a lot of similarities with the dream/subconscious/war you mentioned here.

    1. Thanks, Rise. I'm not very learned in Jung and Freud myself and a little learning is being stretched very far here. (10% Lycra being provided by Google) Glad you enjoyed it as I really wasn't sure if it was coherent.
      And now I'm on a warning for The Wind up Bird, hmmm. It may be a while before I return to Murakami.

  4. This was (and still is) my first Murakami novel. But I liked it and certainly want to read more! I thought the Freud was a little heavy-handed in this book, though. :p I also was horrified at the violence towards cats. *shudders*

    1. Thanks for dropping by Rachel. It's not for squeamish cat lovers alright!

  5. I loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Séamus, and I'm so happy I read that one first since I hated Kafka on the Shore by the end. Really hated it. Old man Nakata was a cool enough character, but that New Agey stuff you mention, all those cartoon fantasy interludes, and the unconvincing voices of both Kafka and especially Crow? What complete dreck! I think I'm done with Murakami's fiction now although I'd still like to read his nonfiction account of the Japanese subway attacks one of these days.

    1. Hi Richard - I see you're not sitting on the fence on this one! You won't be campaigning for him to win the Nobel anytime soon. Neither will I. Although I think I will give The Wind-Up a chance.

      I'm reading Jakob Von Gunten at the moment and am finding the 'voice' somewhat reminiscent of old man Nakata. A sort of unreflective blankness, almost like folk art, if that makes any sense at all.

  6. Another vote for "Wind-Up". Taken together with "Wild Sheep Chase" - the two are sequenced somehow, not that I can recall how exactly - you've got yourself a worthy read and might inch closer to formulating a fuller Murakami world-view. The latter also features a decidedly Freudian father-sage figure, scripted in a somewhat McCarthyesque (Cormac, not Mary) curmudgeon mode, making lots of declarative statements where the protagonist can only sort of sit there and listen and from time to time interject with "oh, really" as the old man gabs on.

    Your take on the relevance of the irrational is apt. But we didn't need Jung, or Murakami, to tell us that probably. Coherency in Murakami riffing on Jung borders on an oxymoron.

    Appreciate the thought you put into these.

    p.s. seem to have trouble getting my name to show up properly...this is il'ja

    1. Hi Il'ja of the many names. Your previous identity seems to have disappeared as it no longer links to a Blogger profile. Google only knows.
      Thanks for taking the time to read this and I am certainly going to get The Wind Up Bird Chronicles if I see it. Cormac McCarthy (or his ilk) as a father figure should provide enough narrative impetus for a few novels.

  7. Hi Seamus. Amazing how our perceptions of works of literature differ! This was my first Mukakami and I have to say I was hugely impressed (despite feeling at times that a further edit could have benefited matters). As Tom, above, commented, perhaps for those who are comprehensively read in Murakami, this might well be a repetition of themes already explored in earlier works, but for me as a newcomer, I was taken with the freshness of approach, the use of literary self-reflexivity and psychoanalytic archetypes, the fusion of Japanese and Western cultures. I was surprised you didn't mention the deadpan humour. Rarely have I laughed so ofter as I journeyed through a book. The appearances of Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders surprised and tickled me a lot! I also found it quite an emotional read - that sense that we, as humans, have abandoned the notion of living in the moment, caught between our memories and the desire to project ourselves into the future. I'll be seeking out more of this writer after a little break. Thanks for the illuminating blog.

    1. Hi Eugene, I don't know if I'm that far away from really liking this - far enough to push a lot of stuff through the gap! The reason I had so much to say about this was that it fascinated me and impressed me for long passages. But I too think it needed another edit (or two).