Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
― Neil Gaiman

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Some time ago, after reading After Dark, I said I wanted to explore more of Haruki Murakami’s work, well I finally got around to it, and I’m very happy I did.

Earlier this year I read Norwegian Wood as a book club selection (review to come, our club has yet to meet due to a few members taking their sweet time to read the book!) and I loved it. I loved it almost as much as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you know how much I love that book! I don’t know what it is about certain translations (that they are beautiful maybe?) but I just can’t get enough of them. I was so taken by Norwegian Wood that I began to think that Murakami might actually be one of my favourite authors, but I couldn’t make such a decision based on two books, to find out for sure I needed to read more.

So, I set myself the task of actively reading more Murakami (to begin with I decided I’d read one book a month, but what with all my other commitments that is starting to seem like wishful thinking) and first on the list was Kafka on the Shore. Now, Norwegian Wood is said to be somewhat of an anomaly in Murakami’s portfolio, but Kafka on the Shore is quintessentially Murakami-esque – so I thought this could be the decision maker.

Where Norwegian Wood is a unique take on a classic tale of love, Kafka on the Shore is weird, wonderful and unashamedly unique!

It’s as if when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

kotsIn Kafka on the Shore storylines combine to trace the extraordinary journeys of two seemingly unrelated characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, haunted by the words of his father’s dark prophecy. Ever since the mysterious departure of his mother and elder sister Kafka’s life has been full of questions. Now his aim is simple, to travel to a far off place and live in the corner of a library. The journey, it seems, may hold the answers.

Elsewhere in Nakano ward, the dim-witted but amiable Nakata tracks lost cats and enjoys the simple things in life, like eels, and pickled vegetables with rice. But this is all set to change with the arrival of a tall man in a top hat and boots, whose interest in the neighbourhood cats is far from innocent. With his simple life turned upside down Nakata is forced to leave Nakano ward, and embarks on journey unlike anything he has ever experienced before, or his simple mind can even comprehend.

As Nakata and Kafka’s stories unwind and intertwine the remarkable interlaces with the ordinary and the world takes on a wholly unusual shape – fish and leeches fall from the sky, and cats converse with people, while WWII soldiers live, unageing, in the depths of unnavigable forest, and living ghosts lurk in the perimeters of consciousness.

Kafka on the Shore is a classic tale of quest and enlightenment, with a wholly unusual twist, which goes beyond the boundaries of classic literature. Murakami’s characters embark on a journey of stunning proportions, a voyage of self-discovery through inexperience. Neither Kafka nor Nakata know what it is they are looking for, but the answer is out there, and the journey introduces them to many strange and wonderful characters, with whom brief encounters prove to be life-affirming.

Anyone who falls in love is searching for missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s just a natural feeling. You’re not the person who discovered that feeling, so don’t go trying to patent it, okay?

Kafka on the Shore is strange – there is no getting around it. Weird and wonderful things occur and the reasons behind these occurrences are not immediately, if at all, clear. Each chapter harbours events which, however deep and profound an impact they may have, lack any logical explanation. Try and apply a logical filter to Murakami’s and you will no doubt find yourself disappointed and frustrated.

I found it useful, in having read Kafka on the Shore to try and get some insight into  Murakami’s own thoughts on his writing. Murakami has explained his writing process as similar to dreaming, rather than delving into the fantastical: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life. It’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it’s not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.”

Kafka on the Shore, then, can be seen as the amalgamation of two different worlds, the combination of the conscious and the unconscious. Think of the book as you would a dream, and suddenly things become much clearer. I was reminded, in reading this, of the talk I went to by Nigerian author Ben Okri last summer in which he spoke of exploring a new way of thinking in his writing, to show that text does not have to follow strict criteria. The world that you create, he said, can be sequential and logical, or circular and dancing. Kafka on the Shore falls firmly into the latter category.

Despite everything, it’s not a difficult book to read. The obscure and the philosophical, which may at times feel somewhat overwhelming, for me were lightened by Murakami’s abstract humour. Here I could give examples of the pimp dressed like Colonel Sanders, or Nakata’s continued reference to going for a ‘dump’ – but for me, the most hilarious part of the book, was Oshima’s fantastic shutting down of two women who refer to him as a ‘typical sexist, patriarchal male’.

My verdict – I liked it. But nowhere near as much as Norwegian Wood. I definitely need to read some more before I make a decision on just how much of a Murakami fangirl I am. The book won’t be for everyone – fans of the logical and sequential and those of you unsettled by violence against animals should steer clear of this one – but I’m certainly not done with my Murakami journey just yet.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” ― J.M. Barrie

Flowers, shadows and the age of magic

Nigerian author Ben Okri reflects on how moving from the UK to Africa as a child introduced him to new experiences that were to be a big influence on his future writing

Ben Okri

Writing should be a lifelong experience, says Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and author. Since publishing his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, at the tender age of 21, Okri has risen to international acclaim. His best known work, The Famished Road, was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize.

As a newcomer to Okri’s work, you would be forgiven for seeing it as somewhat obscure. His ideas, he says, are born “out of the strangeness of reality”. To put this into context, he refers to a time when he first noticed the peculiarity of everything around him, when travelling back to Nigeria from the UK as a young boy. “Everything was strange,” he says, “the trees, and the streets, everything was unusual, and therefore brimming over with ideas.”

In order to reflect this perceived strangeness of reality, Okri expresses himself in a very different way to what he calls the “old Western novel”, referring to books written by the likes of Jane Austen. This older style of writing, he says, follows a sequential pattern, born from a sequential way of thinking taught within Western institutions. Okri’s writing attempts to convey a new way of thinking, to show that writing does not need to follow a strict criteria and can instead be perceived in any number of unique ways  – it can be sequential, he says, or “circular and dancing”.

Okri was participating in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – a week-long University of Cambridge public event celebrating the arts, humanities and social sciences. He reflected on his colourful writing career, sharing a stage with Tim Cribb, an English fellow at the university. Crowds of people turned up to listen to Okri speak. He was invited to begin reading from one of his poems, with the audience duly advised that there was a problem with the sound system, and so we would have to listen carefully. As Okri rose to begin his recital, the audio equipment suddenly crackled into life and the auditorium exploded into applause.

Okri, however, seemed reluctant to speak into the microphone. “I think I will abandon this,” he said, gesturing towards the device. “I do not like to raise my voice. The gentler I speak the clearer I think.

“It is wonderful to be here,” he added, lamenting on what a lovely day it was for such a splendid turnout. “You must love ideas more than sunlight,” he commented, smiling. “That’s unwise.”

Although he was born in west-central Nigeria to an Urhobo family, Okri spent the majority of his early life in London, only returning to Nigeria in 1968 when the country was in the midst of civil war. These experiences dramatically shaped his writing. While Okri has won several esteemed prizes for his work, including the 1987 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, his ability to write emerged only after completing a long and arduous journey.

“As a child,” Okri reflects, “I would read Plato and the classics, and once, my father told me ‘we have our own Platos’. This confused me, and so I asked ‘Where?’.”

His father’s response to this, Okri shows the audience, was to simply gesture all around him. After many years of not fully understanding what his father meant, Okri says that the realisation suddenly dawned on him. His father’s gesture, he now understood, meant: “It is here, you’re just not seeing it.” This realisation, he says, led to more than seven years of self-discovery through writing, a period Okri refers to as his “critical crisis”. Throughout this time he attempted to break down the barriers of language to establish a way of conveying his new look at reality. “Try and get a dimensional reality into sequential prose,” he challenges, “it cannot deal with it – it does not work!”

“The difficulty in writing,” Okri says, “is finding the language to express these ideas without the need for explanation.” Writing, Okri believes, should serve as the special explanation of ideas, where a literal explanation is not needed. The solution to the problem lies within the discovery of language.

Ideas can only exist outside of the mind with the right language; “Otherwise they exist only in their own reality,” he adds.

And more than anything, you must write something which hasn’t been written before. “What are you going to write if it has already been done so beautifully before? How can you do what Dostoyevsky has already done? The whole point in writing is to not repeat – you invest your life in a journey, and if you repeat each day you are effectively writing yourself out of existence.”

In this way, Okri focuses his own writing on the micro moments that have gone unnoticed in more traditional methods of writing. “Everyone focuses on the big moments,” he says, “but reality is in the micro moment, grind it down and you see the seedbeds of the greater moments.”

While uncovering such a method of writing for oneself may seem slightly terrifying to the fledgling writer, reaching a point where you have something unique is the ultimate challenge. “Writing when you do not know where you are going is frustrating and painful,” he says, “but the process, and the finished work, is more fruitful, more rewarding and more beautiful.”

‘Some things only become clear much later’

The Age of Magic ― Ben Okri

The Age of Magic

Ben Okri’s first novel in seven years, The Age of Magic, follows the journey of a film production team travelling from Paris to Basel while filming a documentary. As the voyage unfolds, the team find themselves followed by shadows, plagued by ghosts, troubled by their pasts and enlightened by the world around them.

“What does Arcadia mean to you?” is the subject of the documentary and, increasingly, the question on each of the crew’s minds. The characters are troubled – burdened with their own physical and emotional baggage, in the form of invisible ghommids, trolls, niebelungens, gnomes, harpies, sprites and an elusive quylph. When they are together, the crew speaks increasingly of a disconcerting presence among them – the ever-present, domineering figure of Malasso, the name given by the crew to a haunting, shadowy spectre which stalks the group.

When they arrive at a hotel in a small Swiss town, in the eye of the domineering Rigi Mountain, they are at once gripped by the serene beauty around them. Over the course of the stay, they each find themselves drawn towards the mystery of the crystal clear lake on the edge of the hotel grounds and the secrets of the mountain town.

The novel takes the reader on a journey unlike any other, presenting characters with a different way of seeing the world and offering the reader a very different way of reading. As the crew are transformed by their journey, so too is the reader.

The Age of Magic unfolds to form a truly dreamlike story, with characters wandering like ghosts in a world that seems to form and fall away before their very eyes.

Both the article and review published here were first published in Global: the international briefing. Many thanks to Head of Zeus for supplying a free review copy of The Age of Magic.