Haruki Murakami is Japan’s fiercely imaginative novelist of memory. Memory is dramatically apposite right now, as Japan and China duke it out over Japan’s role (and seeming lapse of memory) in brutalizing China during World War II and before. In Murakami’s previous novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, the theme of atrocities committed during war time is explicit: by means of an inexplicable (or anyway unexplained) time warp, the late-twentieth-century protagonist of the novel finds himself taking responsibility for forgotten crimes during the war. In Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the two plots of the novel are conjoined in the memory of a shadowy narrator living in a cyberpunkish Tokyo. In Murakami’s debut in English, A Wild Sheep Chase, it is a photograph that is the repository of the unnamed narrator’s memory of a Blow Up-like mystery. Murakami is a sumptuous and generous writer who explores deeply moral terrain without pointing fingers. Instead, he is a master of the deadpan sideswipe which, a few pages later, leaves us aching with sorrow or joy, depending on the contest, but anyway reading with new eyes.
In Kafka on the Shore the mechanism of responsibility and the means of memory are even more evanescent. We are in the narrative hands of “the world’s toughest 15-year-old,” Kafka Tamura. Kafka has run away from his father, a famous sculptor living in Tokyo, for Takamatsu, far to the south. There he finds a strange library staffed by a hermaphrodite and a reclusive woman, Miss Saeki, who once had a hit pop record but now spends her time in her studio writing—writing and remembering.
Kafka is caught up in a series of strange events: his father is murdered one night, and Kafka wakes up, hundreds of miles away, from a blackout with blood on his shirt. A Mr. Nakata, who can talk with cats (providing some hilarious and delightful dialogue) but who is otherwise, as he says of himself, not very bright, is looking for—something. Nakata doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but he’ll know when he finds it. Nakata hitches a ride with a truck driver, and together they find themselves, led by Nakata’s cat-like intuition, in Takamatsu. Nakata is followed by rains of frogs and leeches—and the police. Nakata is suspected of the murder of Kafka’s father, and the police want to talk to all three: Kafka, Nakata and the truck driver.
Surprisingly, mysteriously, and ultimately, satisfyingly, it is not the murder that connects these characters but something much stranger. During the War a little boy (who we implicitly know is the young Nakata) suffers a blackout. Bright and curious before, when he comes to he is dull and unable to care for himself. Why did he blackout on a school outing while scouting for mushrooms? “This is a military secret,” perhaps, but “Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through, is now like something from the distant past.” And maybe, for once, the military isn’t responsible: “It doesn’t matter whose dream it started out as…. You’re responsible for whatever happens in the dream. The dream crept down inside you, right down the dark corridor of your soul.”
Darkness creeps in: Miss Saeki in her solitude—what is she remembering? And why is Kafka so attracted to this much older woman? Who is the young boy standing on the shore in the painting that hangs on the wall of the library? You’ll get no answers from me except to say that this masterful novel is much more than a literary puzzle. It is a sonar pulse sounding the depths of the human soul. “The Earth slowly keeps on turning. But beyond any of those details of the real, there are dreams. And everyone’s living in them.” We’re all living in dreams, some shared, some not. And for that, we are responsible.