by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2004
“Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.” Jorge Luis Borges
“How do you review a book like Kafka on the Shore?” Chris asked. This is Chris, of the long list of recommended books. No problem, I told him. Wrong. Not easy. Nonetheless I’m going to give it a stab, because the book is a phenomenon and worth the read.
I’m not saying everyone will take to this book the way Chris did. It took me awhile. I have this new rule I use, my friend Marge’s rule: Read as many pages you are old, but if the author hasn’t hooked you by then, move on. Too many books and too little time.
But by page 54 (my current age), I was still leery. The reality spun by Haruki Murakami (one of Japans most popular authors) isn’t just foreign (taking place in Japan with Shinto overtones) it is also fantastical, with talking cats and “kami” spirits that inhabit both the animate and the inanimate — bodies as well as stones.
I’m not usually a reader of fantasy. I tend to like my stories rational. But now and then (A Hundred Years of Solitude, The Time Traveler’s Wife, All the Names) I’ve loosened my grip and enjoyed the ride. So I kept reading. In part because Chris loved the book and I appreciate his literary taste, but also because the New York Times rated Kafka on the Shore their number one selection for best fiction of 2005.
I’m glad I did, because by page 69 I was hooked. If you prefer to puzzle out a novel’s direction on your own, read no further — grab the book and plunge.
But if, like me, you prefer to know something of the direction in which you are headed when reading fantasy, read on.
There are two stories and two heroes in this novel, brilliantly braided together in alternating chapters. The first narrative swirls around Kafka (whose alter ego is a crow, an apt appellation as you will discover). He is a fifteen year old runaway, embarking on a classic hero’s journey of adolescent awakening, in search of the man he is becoming. How could I not like this kid — he dreams of living and working in a library.
In the second narrative, Nataka, who is mentally impaired, also sets out on a journey — though his is toward a lost past, rather than an awakened future. Early chapters report that during WWII, a group of children inexplicably lost consciousness while searching for mushrooms in the woods. There is some suspicion about a warplane sited not long before, but nothing is verified. Of all the children stricken, only Nataka does not quickly recover, slipping instead into a coma from which he will not awaken for months. When he does rouse, he has lost all previous memory along with his ability to read. It is the reason Nataka becomes, as he will say repeatedly, “not very bright.”
Why do I recommend this novel? It’s original, brilliant, never predictable or trite, rich with metaphor and symbol and characters I can’t forget. The story line is mystical, comical and tragic and sometimes all those at once.
The tales are so wild and bizarre at times that I did wonder if Murakami simply sat down at his writing desk each morning and drew details and plot from some dream of the previous night. Word has it that there was a little of this going on. Though he wouldn’t be the first author to dream his way through a story — as the Borges quote suggests.
Have fun with allusions to Oedipus, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Beethoven, Dylan (Bob), Goethe, Napoleon and the philosopher Hegel. And you might want to google the Japanese Classic Tale of the Genji, as well as Ueda Akinar’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain.. Knowing something of these two works might lend gravity to your reading (double entendre intended.)
Go — read — enjoy! And then after you’ve read check out John Updike’s fabulous review of Kafka on the Shore in the New Yorker (1/24/05.) He’ll clarify some of the metaphors and symbolism and give historical background to Shintoism. But I do recommend waiting until after you have read. Even I don’t like to know that much about the direction of a story — it takes away the intrigue. To find the review just google the title, Kafka on the Shore.