After reading the fabulous Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb a few years ago shortly before moving to Paris, I was left in a … well, a Japanese kind of mood. Our frequent visits to the equally wonderful and historic Librairie Galignani (see below) on the Rue de Rivoli, saw me poring over their selection of Japanese Literature; most obviously the works of Haruki Murakami, whose black and white covers I found particularly attractive and intriguing. That said, I never did get round to picking one of these books up. I didn’t know anyone who had ever read any of his work and eventually became completely distracted reading other things. This, along with the rather elusive synopses on the back of classics like Kafka on the shore and The wind up bird chronicle meant that my original intrigue eventually became forgotten after a while. Now, having read Kafka, I can completely understand why you simply have to read this book to understand and, as usual with most things, simply cannot believe I didn’t pick it up sooner.
Murakami’s work generally seems to get mixed reviews and although I readily admit I need to read more of his books to enable to me judge things from a more educated perspective, my gut tells me that you simply get it and can appreciate it, or you don’t. Forget griping about the Americanisms (in principal I can understand the irritation caused but really who cares? It doesn’t take away from the fundamental aspects of the book) and, god forbid, a less than perfect translation. I do not understand this personally. This book is the creation of a Japanese writer; it is surreal, exotic and foreign and the translation reflects this, and so it should! Reviewers are all to quick to criticise phrases that seem a little out of kilter when that is precisely the translator’s intention! This is an out of kilter book, one that requires reflection and an immediate re-read, particularly on the part of the Western reader, who is sucked into the marvelous world of talking cats, ancient libraries and a good ol’ walking, talking Colonel Sanders.
We follow the respective journeys of two different men; Kafka Tamura (named in honour of Czech writer Franz Kafka), a fifteen year old runaway who eventually finds himself taking refuge in a private library in Takamatsu, on the Japanese island of Shikoku where he can attempt to separate himself from his psychotic father and his frightening prophecy that Kafka will eventually kill him and have sex with both his mother and sister. He is befriended and protected by Oshima, a hemophiliac who has almost as many secrets as Kafka himself, and the enigmatic Miss Saeki, the owner of the library who the teenager becomes increasingly attached to. The second story, which eventually links with the first (or so we think) follows the journey of Satoru Nakata, an old man who, although unable to read and write and thus participate in society in the conventional way his brother and sisters are able to, is immensely good natured and uncomplicated. He possesses the uncanny ability, most excitingly of all, to converse with cats and his own travels also take him, along with the likeable truck-driver Hoshino, who picks him up on his way, right into the heart of Takamatsu.
It is important to reign yourself in when discussing this book as almost every couple of pages you stumble across something completely unexpected and even to make an attempt at discussing the plot and main themes in detail would be incredibly difficult as it puts you at risk of ruining it for those who haven’t read it. Many Latin American writers (and filmmakers) famously explore the depths of magical realism; the likes of Lorca and Gabriel Garcia Marquez being the two most obvious that come to mind, and I am more than familiar with the way in which these writers play with the concept of space and time and the way in which ‘reality’ as we know it will suddenly slip into the surreal as though it is the most natural thing in the world. However, I found the type of magical realism in Murakami’s tale to be subtly different in a few ways. Talking cats (I adore cats so this aspect of the book in itself won me over right away) raining leeches and ghosts aside, I found these aspects to be much darker than their Latin American counterparts; particularly the Oedipal fantasies that are explored that are a world away from the earthy, homespun magic found in the likes of Cien años de soledad (A hundred years of solitude – Garcia Marquez) and Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate – Laura Esquivel).
I could take or leave Kafka as a character really, though he does the job, but I found myself feeling a great deal of affection for and protectiveness over Nakata, who finds himself in a potentially very frightening and stressful situation from which I wanted to extract him immediately. Although you do find yourself needing to put the book down for a few minutes after reading certain pages to soak everything in and link everything together as best you can, Murakami’s writing is so evocative that it can often provoke physical reactions from reading. Along with your rollercoaster of sadness and happiness there are moments were you can feel stressed, slightly aroused or even physically sick. There was a certain moment where I literally had to close the book and put it back in my bag (I was however reading these gruesome passages at 7.30 am on the way to work, which was a little to early to say the least!) Don’t let this deter you however. This is an all-consuming, thought provoking tale from which hundreds of different conclusions can be made….or you may just leave feeling confused. This isn’t your average read and I adored it for that very reason. Top marks.