The worst nightmare for any reviewer is that they would come across a book so fascinating that they absolutely have to pen down their thoughts, so mind-boggling that they have to get it out of their system and so over their heads that they don’t know what their thoughts are or what they have to get out of their system. I thought I came across such a book when I devoured Lolita (pun intended). I was wrong.
Kafka on the Shore has left me with everything to feel and nothing to think.
I’ll be better able to explain what I mean when you understand the context. Most of us today have been so heavily brought up on western literature, be it a Dickens or a Tolstoy or the cold rationale of an Agatha Christie or the fantastical worlds of Tolkien and Rowling, we have been brought up in a form of literature rooted heavily in realism and the real world, with all its possibilities and limitations. Eastern culture, Japanese included, takes a very different view of things by laying strong belief in the concept of an after-life and limbo. Spirits and Ghosts exist popularly, and they may not always be evil. People don’t die, their souls merely pass on to a limbo and then if they’re lucky, to the next world. Those souls in limbo wait for their time, and therefore time itself loses meaning in such a limbo. Death is, as may be familiar to a lot of us, merely another journey to be undertaken.
Haruki Murakami relies heavily on this context to give a framework to his extraordinarily surreal story and plot. The plot itself is beyond understanding till we accept that souls exist and that these souls can pass from one body to another (given that the Entrance Stone – a nifty plot device in the book – is open), thereby changing one’s goals, needs and desires, sometimes even causing a conflict between body and soul. This, of course, gets highly confusing and the reader is liable to get some headaches as he tries to comprehend how he landed up with this book and what he did to deserve such mental struggles (this might be a slightly personal experience, but I’d like to think everyone goes through it).Unless and until you accept this surrealism to be rational, the book will make no sense to you. And this is exactly where the author and his extraordinarily beautiful prose makes things simple.
The greatness of the book is not this surrealism. It is the fact that the rational reader suspends his disbelief enough to accept this surrealism as the logical sequence of events. It doesn’t deter him enough to throw away the book when a man appears named after a whiskey or a chicken-selling clown appears trying to be a pimp. The rational readers accepts all of this as rational literature and proceeds to devour it. The credit for this is not to the reader. It is to Mr. Murakami, and throughout the 500 pages of irrationality that I went through, I was most marveled by the skill of this man that he could make his readers so beautifully irrational, even if for a while. This level of writing is exceedingly rare, and the skill to pace his plot, structure his story and conclude everything without a conclusion is either enough to inspire people to write or deter them from ever picking up the pen again, knowing that this is talent which is almost impossible to match. Mr. Murakami’s greatest achievement, in other words, is his own skill. The book is merely the extension of that skill, however beautiful it may be.
Kafka on the Shore, just like Murakami keeps reiterating over and over again throughout the book, is all about metaphors. Everything is a metaphor, including all those souls, cats, killers and even death itself. Everything can be interpreted in a million different ways. Everything holds a different meaning when viewed ever so slightly from a different angle. This is the kind of book which, when you ask two different people, never holds the same meaning to both of them. If you ask the same person after a year, you’ll find yet another perspective and interpretation. This is the hallmark of a great book, one which is capable of cutting across cultures, beliefs and time itself.
For me, in this moment of time, the book is about the struggle to find oneself and the importance of finding one’s true soul. Kafka, the titular character, in my interpretation of the book, lost his soul to the world when we meet him, and his body houses the soul of a different Kafka, one who lived long ago, died long ago and spent years waiting to unite with his true love. The soul guides the body and guides the mind, till it is reunited with that love. All this while, he is empty. He is hopeless. He is searching. Kafka Tamura is dead. It is only when he finds his own soul that he could live and embrace life. It is only then that he can truly hope and take action based on that hope. He could live only when he allows Kafka to die.
At its most basic, most bare, Kafka on the Shore is all about the need of the human soul to find its place in the world, either this or the next. And in true eastern philosophical sense, that place is often nothing material, but another soul. Someone who completes you. Someone who truly loves you. Someone who may not be of this time or this space. Someone who transcends what science knows and what the mind believes to be possible.
Someone who you can finally call Home.
The book is about love, loss and everything in between. It is about the importance of philosophy and the beauty of the mind to understand it. Kafka on the Shore is about the true meaning of freedom and the innate human desire to achieve it, while not fully understanding it.
The book is a million different things, a million different emotions and a million different souls put together in 500 pages. It is a book you should revisit often, not to understand the author but to use it as a benchmark to understand yourself and maybe to understand a world you don’t belong to.
You don’t need to be particularly smart to understand it.All you need to be is open, and all you need to have is a soul that you can call your own. Mr. Murakami and his extraordinary art will do the rest for you.
Reviewed by: Aniruddha Rege