*Some spoilers for Kafka on the Shore*
As one reviewer put it (perhaps an article in The Atlantic), reading Murakami is in large part enjoyable because he is a great travel companion. Having been raised in the Western tradition, I have a general distaste for plot holes and artistic excess, but my experience reading Kafka was in large part enjoyable because of its “filler scenes” of characters going out for a walk, eating dinner, and going to cafes. The cliche that, “we read to know we are not alone” rings especially true here, where you are reading not so much for plot development or to excavate some great truth to the world, but simply to feel the presence of another, to be allowed into that intimate space of self-reflection. There’s a scene in which Hoshino goes out to a cafe and listens carefully to and appreciates Beethoven for the first time, and while this contributes almost nothing to the plot other than showing that Nakata is opening Hoshino up to a world beyond that of mundane routine, it’s memorable because it’s so lovingly painted. In many ways Hoshino is the most relatable character because Kafka harbors some darkness that is impossible to understand (who is Crow, anyway?), Nakata is, well, Nakata, and Oshima is a bit too complex for us to understand entirely. Hoshino is simple, likable, and most of all forgivable, for he’s just like anyone one of us stumbling around in life and just trying to do the best that we can. For these same reasons Sakura is sorely missed throughout the book, as some of the scenes with her are well crafted and ground us in reality — I suppose that’s her role for returning only at the end of the story, to ensure that Kafka is back in our world and that we can somewhat find closure in its comforts.
Because the reading is so easy and conversational, I found myself experiencing a phenomenon that strangely tied into the novel itself. When I started being more comfortable with the idea that good literature doesn’t have to be carefully planned and executed in the sense of everything having certain meaning (a “magnetic field” as described in the New Yorker review ) I began letting my imagination run loose: what would I write if I were to just let it all gush forth, all the scenes that randomly spring to mind throughout the day and in my dreams? Might there not be some meaning between it all, even if that meaning is indecipherable? This was in part spurred by the fact that I had been wanting to write fiction for a while but was afraid to start unless I knew exactly what the themes would be, how it would develop, etc. But reading a book in which Colonel Sanders comes out of nowhere as a pimp, or where the entrance stone is literally a stone, and where fish falling from the sky is allowed to remain a mystery, you begin to think differently.
While it’s impossible to ascertain some “core” to the novel’s whirling layers, the fact that an imagination run wild can still lure you with some hint of meaning, even if it is unreachable, is profound in its own way. There’s so much we end up not knowing, about Johnnie Walker and the flute, Crow, Miss Saeki (is he really Kafka’s mother? But really, does that matter for their relationship to have meaning?), what was that slime thing that comes out of Nakata?, etc. but in the end we enjoyed and gained from, the journey. You step into the sandstorm and, even though the sandstorm is nothing but particles thrown spontaneously and randomly against the wind, we emerge changed.
“You’re afraid of imagination and even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the resposibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep and dreams are a part of sleep. When you’re awake you can suppress imagination but you can’t supress dreams.”
This bit on the importance of dreams was intriguing in that it implies there is something, some other world, that lies dormant in each of us and is impossible to keep at bay. Some combination of memory and longing, a raw imaginative force, pulses within us and is beyond even the most herculean efforts to give it shape by narrative. In a sense Kafka mocks those clean cut stories with firm resolution: who are we to dictate what dreams have to say? In that sense perhaps it’s best that Crow remains elusive, that part of ourselves that we know is there and have a relationship with but cannot ultimately be understood on the same plane our world rests on.
Earlier this month I went on a short day trip to Busan, and the entire time I couldn’t help but keep thinking about Kafka. I saw lots of cats lazing about and skirting through dark, narrow alleys, and the waves crashed in and out along the shore that lined the culture village. It was windy and freezing yet a nice, sunny day, reminiscent of the day I went to Odaiba now just about a year ago:
The winter air lent itself to introspection, though perhaps all shore are like that — we humble ourselves before all that we do not and cannot know, and yet go on living regardless. Sitting there absorbed in the beauty and wonder of the unknown, Nakata asks Hoshino something like, “What lives in there?” Hoshino tries to rationalize all of the creatures and rubble underneath the waves but ends up like the rest of, asking himself: “Who am I kidding, what do I know?” For all our worth in philosophy we will never really be able to be in the deepest depths of the ocean or the furthest reaches of space just as we will never be able to map all that lies within us.
Sure, the Western culture references to literature and music may seem a bit gratuitous at times, but I’ve also started to see this more in terms my own fascination with Japan. For Murakami, the West is like the ocean as well, full of pieces like the Archduke Trio and stories like Oedipus Rex, rich with meaning yet speaking to a wider sea of art that lies in the distance simply by virtue of chance.
For me, Kafka is but a small pebble washed up on a shore looking out into the East, but all works point inward to the depths that extend beyond any regional markers.
(Busan, South Korea)