Kafka on the Shore

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 6/04/2014

The First Half of the story is narrated in the first person by a 15-year old boy who calls himself Kafka. He runs away from home because he’s grown up under a curse, that he’ll one day murder his father and sleep with his mother and sleep with his sister. This curse is pronounced on Kafka at a young age by his father, after his mother has left the family and taken his sister with her. 

He drifts west from Tokyo and ends up in Takamatsu, taking refuge at the private Komura Memorial Library.  He’s quickly befriended by the assistant to the head of the library, a youth named Oshima. Oshima had a troubled youth himself, so he takes pity on the young runaway and arranges for him to live in the library in a spare room.

The head of the library is an ethereally attractive 50-something woman named Saeki who has a mysterious past.  She had grown up with the young heir of the Komura family, and they’d been in love. But then he went to college in Tokyo, got caught up in the student movement, and got beaten to death by radicals who mistook him for a spy.  Saeki never recovered.  She disappeared from Takamatsu for decades, and only returned a few years ago to take over as head of the library.  

Kafka is lodged in the room that had once belonged to Komura.  On the wall is a painting of a boy sitting on a seashore.  The painting is titled “Kafka on the Shore”.  Now, it’s not lost on Kafka that he kinda looks like the kid in the painting or that Saeki is the right age to be his mother now. And then the 15-year-old Saeki appears in his room at night a couple of times and then the present-day Saeki comes to his room and they make love. Earlier we learn that Kafka’s father, a sculptor, was found stabbed to death in Tokyo on the same night that Kafka wakes up covered with blood on the grounds of a shrine in Takamatsu, with a blank in his memory of several hours. Although physically there was no way he could have done it, Kafka is convinced that he spirit-projected a la Rokujo and killed his father. He also has a dream about a 21-year-old girl he’d met on the bus to Tokushima.  He suspected she was his sister, although with no particular justification, and in the dream he rapes her.

Kafka then wanders into the woods surrounding Oshima’s cabin (where he’s holed up because the police have been searching for him in connection with his father’s death) and visits what seems to be the netherworld. He’s led there by two WWII soldiers known to have disappeared on this mountain, and while there he meets first the 15-year-old Saeki and then the adult Saeki, newly arrived.  He’s happy to stay there, but she tells him he must go back, must live and remember her.  She more or less sort of confirms his suspicion that she’s his mother, and asks his forgiveness, which he gives. Then he goes back to the world of the living, where he learns (though he suspected it) that Saeki has died of a heart attack. He decides to go back to Tokyo and finish junior high, and Oshima says he’s welcome to come work at the library when he’s ready.

The other storyline, narrated entirely in the third person, concerns an old man named Nakata.  As a boy during the war Nakata had been beaten into a coma by a teacher, and when he recovered he was retarded.  Lost all his memory, and never relearned how to read.  As an old man in Tokyo – in the same Nakano-ku that Kafka lived in – he survives on city assistance and a little help from his elite brothers.  And, because he can talk to cats, he picks up a little extra cash finding lost cats. 

One day the search for a lost cat leads him to the house of Johnnie Walker – a guy who looks just like the Johnnie Walker on the whiskey bottle (although Nakata doesn’t recognize him).  He says he’s not Johnnie Walker, but just borrowed his identity to manifest himself here.  He’s been capturing cats, torturing them, eating their hearts, and stealing their souls to make a flute that will allow him to collect more souls.  But now he’s weary and he wants Nakata to kill him.  Nakata is a gentle soul, so Johnnie kills a couple of cats in front of him to arouse his violence, and then Nakata picks up a knife and stabs him to death.  We realize that somehow this Johnnie Walker was Kafka’s father.

Nakata tries to confess to the police, but they think he’s crazy and let him go.  So he leaves Tokyo, hitchhiking westward.  Along the way he realizes that he can no longer talk to cats, but can make odd things fall from the sky – leeches or fish.  Why he’s traveling west even he doesn’t know, but he has something he needs to do.  Eventually he is taken in by a young truckdriver named Hoshino who, reminded of his beloved late grandfather, ends up taking off work and chaperoning Nakata on his mission, whatever this is.

Without knowing it they’re following in Kafka’s tracks, first to Tokushima and then Takamatsu.  In Takamatsu, Nakata realizes he needs to find a stone called the Entrance Stone.  He has no idea how to do this.  But while he’s sleeping, Hoshino goes out on the town and runs into a guy who looks just like, and calls himself, Colonel Sanders, like the KFC mascot.  This guy says he knows where the stone is, and will tell Hoshino, but Hoshino has to hire one of his hookers first – he’s a pimp.  Hoshino finally agrees, sleeps with the girl, and then Colonel Sanders takes him to a shrine and shows him the stone – a round white stone the size of an LP. 

Hoshino takes it back to Nakata.  Nakata, after conversing with the stone, tells Hoshino he needs to flip it over.  This takes all of Hoshino’s strength, since the stone has miraculously become almost infinitely heavy, but he lifts it. Then Nakata says he needs to do something else, and has Hoshino drive him around until they stumble across the Komura Library. This is the place, says Nakata, and the next day they go in. Nakata meets Saeki and talks with her alone.  He tells her the entrance stone is open, and that his role is to put things back in order.  She asks if this is because she went in before – Nakata has no idea.  He leaves.  Later that day is when Oshima finds her dead.

Back at their apartment (a hideout prepared for them by Colonel Sanders), Nakata goes to sleep, and then dies in his sleep. Hoshino knows that he has to close the entrance stone, but it’s just a normal, light stone right now.  A cat appears on the windowsill and tells him (now Hoshino can talk to cats) to wait until It comes and kill it.  Then he can close the stone.  What? But he waits, and eventually a white, slug-like thing crawls out of Nakata’s corpse.  No limbs or face.  Hoshino does battle with it, and finally drops the stone on it, killing it.  Then the stone is heavy, and he can wrestle with it and flip it, closing the entrance.

He leaves the cops to claim Nakata’s body, but says that he’ll always carry a part of Nakata with him – he’s been changed.

My Interpretation is that Nakata storyline is just Kafka’s dream. 

Comments (2)

  1. I enjoyed the book, but can only say that I remain mystified as to what it all means - if it means anything!

    Here are my thoughts on that:

    (a) there's echoes of the Oedipus myth;

    (b) something seems to be being said about the value of learning: is the library a refuge from real life, or does it help the living?;

    (c) there's more than a touch of magic and miracle and travelling between worlds, between life and death;

    (d) it seems that Kafka's parents both have more than one avatar, which perhaps represents the different faces or aspects of reality, and perhaps says that personality is not as integrated as we like to imagine: we're different people to each other at different times;

    (e) the magical transformations e.g. of Nakata (my favorite character) and Hoshino support the previous idea, so maybe the book's all about the process, and necessity, of transformation?

    What did you make of it?

  2. I absolutely loved the mystical alternate reality feel..Complex, amazing, extraordinary piece of literature
    London, 2016

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