Moments from Other Lives: Thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore

Are you attracted to characters and story lines that surprise you? Life doesn’t always make sense and neither does art.

© semihundido with CCLicense
© semihundido with CCLicense

Many literary works are peopled with stereotypes and follow formulae which have been set down by tradition. We are used to villains, jilted lovers, clever servants, even flawed heroes, and we know how they should behave and how their actions should be rewarded. Sometimes it is fulfilling to see our sensibilities validated, especially if we live in a world that does not often recognize those sensibilities, but, as a steady diet, this becomes boring and can even discourage empathy in our daily lives.

Dalí Atomicus by Philippe Halsman
Dalí Atomicus by Philippe Halsman

Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore presents us with characters and a chain of events that are on the other side of the spectrum: illogical, inconsistent, sometimes inexplicable. It often seems as if Murakami himself wasn’t fully aware of the directions his characters were taking. Yet, when looked at in retrospect, there are forces here that can be recognized, providing a sense of cause and effect that is full of synchronicity while avoiding rational sense. Marukami leaves plenty of things below the surface for the reader to find without spelling them out or providing a map.

Two main narratives are woven together: that of a fifteen year old runaway calling himself “Kafka” Tamura and that of Satoru Nakata, an old man who lost his capacity for coherent thought as a result of a mysterious accident in his youth during World War II. These two characters interact without ever coming into direct contact with each other, tied together by a murder which never quite makes sense. Unexpectedly, simple Nakata, who cannot read and spends his days hunting for lost cats, is often an inspiring and even powerful figure, while Tamura does as he pleases and is drawn into a trap which he perceives but cannot avoid.

Colonel Sanders, KFC Japan © Alvin Lee with CCLicense
Colonel Sanders, KFC Japan
© Alvin Lee with CCLicense

Each character they interact with has his or her own story, equally fascinating, but peripheral. We may wonder about the lonely and beautiful Miss Saeki, enshrined in a library dedicated to the family of her dead lover; about Sakura, the quirky hairdresser who remains obliging but somehow distant; or about Oshima, the library assistant, a gender ambiguous hemophiliac possessed of deep wisdom and compassion, but these characters are only granted meaning and interest by their relationship with Tamura. The world of Nakata is even stranger, inhabited by talking cats, spirit-concepts masquerading as popular culture icons such as Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, and one friend, a young truck driver named Hoshino, who becomes Nakata’s disciple.

Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads–at least that’s where I imagine it–there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.


Tape Library of CERN, Geneva  © gruntzooki with CCLicense
Tape Library of CERN, Geneva
© gruntzooki with CCLicense

One of the central metaphors of Kafka on the Shore is that of the mind as a library, a place where our lives and memories exist. Like the novel itself, this library is populated by strange visions of the self and other people. Here are a couple of candles or flashlights that you might find useful if you want to go exploring. I highly recommend you crawl into this novel, get dirty, and see what you can find.

The Larger Mind: The Collective Unconscious Construct

Imagine our world as a library. You and I and everyone else we know are books that stand next to each other on a shelf, supported by other shelves and surrounded by volumes we will never see, let alone read. Each book, from tome to graphic novel, is unique and individual and centers on a main character. Can you imagine that, lying close to each other on the shelves, we might occasionally and inexplicably intermingle our stories? Like Nakata and Tamura, we are partners in something beyond ourselves. What if something that happened to you happened to me instead?

Bookshelves in Urbanian Pavilion, World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China © Lucia Wang with CCLicense
Bookshelves in Urbanian Pavilion, World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China
© Lucia Wang with CCLicense

In dreams and fantasies, moments of synchronicity or surrealism, we sometimes get a glimpse of this immense library of human experience. These visions are often celebrated and shared through the arts. The earth moves. The dead show us things and our struggles get confused with theirs. Miss Saeki, a mother figure to Kafka, is known to him in a in very shocking way as he identifies with her dead lover. The Oedipal complex revealed here is one of the most uncomfortable features of the novel and screams to be dealt with in a non-literal fashion.

The Smaller Mind: The Self Construct

Alchemist, Jaume Plensa  image © Ezequiel Zwik with CCLicense
Alchemist, Jaume Plensa
image © Ezequiel Zwik with CCLicense

Imagine yourself as a library of memories and experiences, illogical and wonderful. Can you see within yourself separate characters–the child, the fifteen year old, the newlywed? Some of these selves seem to be from different stories, even different genres. Where do these people go as we age and how do they interact within our own being to make us the people we are right now?  

Perhaps all of the characters in Kafka on the Shore are archetypal elements of one person: the absent mother, the oppressive father, the runaway, the wise and holy old fool. This raises another question. Which character is the true main character? This story could be about an old man dealing with the loss of his wife, or a woman coming to terms with her estrangement and separation from her lover and family. It could be about a fifteen year old boy who sees himself repeating the mistakes of his parents. Perhaps it is an allegory about modern Japan itself, still reeling from damage done in World War II. In overlaying a world not so different from our own with visions from the subconscious mind, Murakami has created a library full of stories in one book, which can be reread time and time again from a different viewpoint. Genius!

4 thoughts on “Moments from Other Lives: Thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore

  1. mkriegh Reply

    What a lovely post! You have inspired me to add this to my reading list. I am still making my way through Dracula I will have you know…Interesting how the internet mingles the thoughts and ideas of books lying geographically far apart from one another. It seems to break down time and space.

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Thanks! That is a beautiful idea… the internet lets us see some of those books on distant shelves, doesn’t it? It certainly can contribute to cultural blending, which I enjoy.

  2. Pingback: Moments from Other Lives: Thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore | First Night Design

  3. Pingback: Author’s Choice: Favorite Articles of 2013 | synkroniciti

Leave a Reply