A man talks to cats, fish and leeches rain down from the sky, a man dressed like Johnny Walker (of whisky fame) is making a flute from cats’ souls, and a stone opens the door to another world. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Haruki Murakami.
The book begins with an account of a strange incident just after the Second World War. A teacher and a group of children go foraging for mushrooms in a forest. Suddenly all the children pass out on the forest floor. When they come to, they have no memory of the incident except for one, who never really comes back whole. The children are examined but the doctors find nothing strange or unusual.
The book follows two characters: Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old who runs away from home to escape his father’s prophecy, an Oedipal curse, and to find his mother; and Nakata, a middle-aged man (“not very bright”, in his words) who can talk to cats. Kafka’s mother left when he was very young, taking his sister with her, leaving the father to bring him up. Nakata is the boy who almost did not survive the incident on the hill—one of the brightest students, he emerged from his coma unable to read but able to talk to cats. As an adult, using this unique gift, he helps people find their missing cats.
Kafka ends up in a library in Takamatsu—the last place he thinks his father will look for him—where he is befriended by Oshima and the person who runs the library, Miss Saeki. In the meantime, Nakata has been involved in a murder and is on the run, but also on a quest to find a stone that can open the door into another world. He is helped by Hoshino, a truck driver who gives him a lift.
As the story develops, Kafka and Nakata’s paths start to converge. Kafka reads in the paper that his father has been brutally murdered and the police are looking for him to find out what he knows. But who killed the father? Was he the Johnny Walker character whom Nakata stabbed?
Despite the murder, this is not a whodunit. It is about people trying to make sense of their pasts and their identities. And sometimes that requires walking into an alternative universe that is buried deep in the forest near Oshima’s cabin and guarded by two soldiers left behind from the Second World War.
Kafka on the Shore is a fascinating book that does not answer all the questions it raises. Murakami builds his story through interconnected layers where repercussions from events ripple out beyond their immediate surroundings. This book is never predictable—you never know how it is going to unfold.
My only gripe is that the translation uses Americanisms which seem a bit strange coming from Japanese characters (like “Jeez Louise”). But that’s a small complaint. Read this book—it is utterly strange and compelling.