Life As A Metaphor

A book review of Japan's most coveted author

Life As A Metaphor
Manuel Cosentino on Unsplash.com

If you are not willing to believe that man can talk to cats, that the sky can rain with sardines and eels, or that Johnny Walker is more than the man on the whisky bottle, this book is probably not for you. Haruki Murakami is an author who creates his own world with his own rules. The Japanese author is known for his wild imagination and deeply metaphorical, riddle-like plots that often leave the readers with more questions than answers. In his novel Kafka on the Shore, published in 2002, Murakami ponders the connection between fate and free will, consciousness and dreams, and isolation and loss.

What is interesting about his writing style, is his ability to explain even the most dramatic events in a very simple, matter-of-fact way. His narration is stripped of anything extra, and leaves room for the reader to ponder what might the seemingly ever-changing theme and meaning be. Even for the most imaginative and open-minded reader, the significance of these random, surreal coincidences that narrate the story might be unclear and feel overwhelming. Yet, I was unable to put this book down, certain that on the next page, or the next one, I would understand what was going on.

The book intertwines the stories of two characters, Kafka and Nakata, both who have only half of their shadow left. The other half is somewhere, missing. To escape the haunting prophecy of his father Koichi, 15 -year old Kafka Tamura decides to run away from his home in Tokyo and ends up in the town Takamatsu. According to the prophecy, Kafka will kill his father and sleep with his mother, who left with Kafka’s sister when he was only four. Kafka’s relationship with his father was never good, and he longs to find his mother and sister. Kafka eventually ends up finding a library in Takamatsu, where he is able to work and bunk. He makes friends with the librarian named Oshima, and is mesmerized by the ethereal Ms. Saeki.

Nakata, a 60 -year old man, lost his memory as a child after a mysterious accident. Nakata forgets how to read and write, but gains the ability to communicate with cats after the accident. Nakata lives on government subsidy and makes a little bit of money by finding lost cats. One of his cat friends asks him to help find a calico cat gone missing, and Nakata begins his search. He finds himself in Tokyo and encounters the evil cat-killer Johnny Walker. To his own surprise, the good-hearted, sweet Nakata is overcome with anger and he stabs Johnny Walker to death. Until now, Nakata has not been faced with any kind of decision-making; he has simply watched his life unfold in front of him without any interference. Now he is responsible for a cruel act and must flee the city to escape. The next day, Kafka Tamura learns from the newspaper that his father has been killed.

In this novel, all roads lead to Takamatsu instead of Rome. Takamatsu seems to be a place that pulls these two characters towards it with an unexplainable power. Both Nakata and Kafka have the rare ability to lose consciousness, go into a deep dream, and wake-up with no memory no memories of the past hours. Kafka lives in the belief that he can avoid his destiny of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, but really he is just travelling closer to that reality. It seems like Nakata has a predetermined role in Kafka’s life, as he finds Johnny Walker and kills him first. But was is really Nakata’s choice, or did Kafka make it reality by dreaming? Where was Kafka that night Johnny Walker was killed? He wakes up the next after losing consciousness and has no recollection of the events, but his hands and shirt covered in blood.

Oshima is the one who consoles Kafka as he tries to make sense of it all. He tells Kafka:

“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. 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 like Adolf Eichmann caught up in the twisted dreams of a man named Hitler.”

Kafka finds acceptance and love in Oshima, a character who is wise like an oracle despite his young age. Oshima works at the library in Takamatsu and is neither man or woman. He is also the one who tells Kafka that life is actually a metaphor:

”I'm repeating myself, but everything in life is metaphor. People don't usually kill their

father and sleep with their mother, right? In other words, we accept irony through a device called metaphor. And through that we grow and become deeper human beings.”

What unites the two characters, Kafka and Nakata, is the lyrics of a song written by Ms. Saeki when she was a young girl. The lyrics go:

”The drowning girl's fingers

Search for the entrance stone, and more.

Lifting the hem of her azure dress,

She gazes --

at Kafka on the shore”

After killing Johnny Walker, Nakata is ordered by Destiny to find the entrance stone, which is what ultimately leads him to Takamatsu. Kafka on the other hand believes the song lyrics are proof that Ms. Saeki is his mother. Kafka dreams about sleeping with Ms. Saeki, just like his father predicted. Murakami carries the story along with the always present idea of one’s responsibility beginning in one’s dreams. Was Kafka responsible for killing his father and sleeping with his mother? Is Nakata just a character living in another realm of dreams, where he and Kafka meet and make decisions together? In Murakami’s world, does anyone really desire total freedom? After all, isn’t it much easier to walk along in the footsteps of our habits and routines, not really questioning anything or stopping to wonder why?

Perhaps my favorite quote of the novel comes again from Oshima:

”And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.”

A storm is indeed a fitting metaphor for life. Whether or not life is a metaphor, is left for the reader to decide. This book certainly feels like a storm that passes through and makes one feel different from when it began.

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