A Writer’s Magical Touch: Bare Bones, a Touch of Poetry

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Alfred A. Knopf, 436 pages, $25.95.

This is the way these things happen, don’t ask why. Nakata has a mind that works simply, even if he’s not exactly a simpleton. He forgets a lot; he doesn’t understand everything said to him; but he can talk to cats. Does that odd facility balance his other shortcomings? Not really worth asking; it’s not a world of checks and balances so much as blind luck. Still, because of his conversational prowess with cats, Nakata is often hired to find missing felines. He’s looking for a tortoise-shell named Goma. And he has heard that a man wearing a top hat and black boots may be helpful.

Well, one day a bad-tempered dog takes Nakata to this man: It turns out that the fellow is Johnnie Walker, the figure on the famous whisky bottle, and he has an avocado-colored refrigerator, filled with the heads of cats “arranged on three shelves like oranges at a fruit stand.” (Haruki Murakami likes fruit and vegetables, not just to eat, but as emblems of growth and health.)

Johnnie Walker kills cats. He drugs them to induce paralysis (but not enough to eliminate the pain). Then he slits open the chest, removes the heart and cuts off the head. He has a bag with five captured cats in it, one of them Goma. This is all part of Johnnie Walker’s plan. As he points out to Nakata, Johnnie Walker intends to kill Goma, whereas Nakata wants that cat. It’s the old conflict of interests. They must negotiate. What must I do to save Goma? Nakata wonders. Ah, says Johnnie Walker, you must kill me, because “I’m sick and tired of killing cats, but as long as I live that’s what I have to do.”

Nakata protests: He cannot do such a thing. Johnnie Walker is understanding. Think of it as a war, he advises, when people have to do things they might not want to do. As encouragement, he takes the first cat out of the bag and cuts out its heart: “Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he popped the heart into his mouth and began chewing silently, leisurely savoring the taste. His eyes glistened like a child enjoying a pastry hot from the oven.”

Similes and other such flights of speech are not common in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Kafka on the Shore, and when they come, they are as simple, bright and piercing as a lemon just cut open, so tasty but enough to bring tears to the eye or make a recent wound smart. Anyone here wounded? There must be someone, don’t be shy about owning up-in this world, sudden, inexplicable blood-lettings are only to be expected. It’s a cat’s life, after all, and you can be sitting curled up purring one minute and an autopsy specimen the next.

Who is Kafka, you might very well ask, and what’s he doing in Japan? Indeed, it would be suspicious, and likely to attract the police, if you didn’t ask. Ah, who is Kafka? you want to know. Very well. He’s a boy who decided to run away from home and father on his 15th birthday. Off he goes, and decides to say that his name is Kafka Tamura. “Weird name,” says the girl he meets on a bus, Sakura. But she is amiable in an impersonal way and helps him along. She lets him spend a night at her place, she kindly jerks him off and says, yes, of course, it’s all right if he wants to imagine her naked. After all, imagining is a very private thing.

Kafka spends his days in a library, and he makes friends there with one of the librarians, Oshima, who takes Kafka off on a long drive in his green Mazda Miata to a cabin in the woods, where Kafka can stay. It’s a simple life there, no electricity or running water, but there’s a pure stream nearby and a gas stove, with supplies and lots of good reading. Just don’t go too deep into the woods, warns Oshima, because it’s far easier to get lost than you might imagine.

Why a deserted place in the middle of the woods? Well, I’m not saying, and you won’t know at first, since you’re only a reader-though readers are just as important as writers in this tricky process-but I will observe that the stories of Kafka and Nakata are mixed in with reports of a strange incident from 1944. This is what happened: As the war went on, a teacher took 16 students into the woods one day, to look for mushrooms and, of course, to experience the woodsiness of the woods. They thought a silver plane passed overhead-a B-29, perhaps. After all, this was the war and the Americans were growing bold. Anyway, right after that, the children all lost consciousness.

As you can imagine, there was an investigation. And then, after the war, the Americans took up the matter, adding that no B-29 had been anywhere in the vicinity that day. Fifteen of the children recovered consciousness and seemed to have suffered no damage at all, physical or mental. They simply did not recall the event. One boy did not recover, and he was taken away to hospital. The teacher was not affected. She had done all she could to help her pupils. And she answered the questions of the inquiry. But she admits, years later, that she didn’t give all the information available. You see, she was embarrassed to admit that, thinking of sex with her husband on the woodland walk, she suddenly realized that her period had begun, though it was not her time. As I’ve suggested, in Kafka on the Shore there’s altogether too much blood for mere coincidence. It’s something you’re going to have to be on the look-out for.

And if it occurs to you that that one boy who went away to the hospital could be Nakata, I’d say you were getting warm. But does that amount to an explanation of why Nakata and cats can talk together in the largely matter-of-fact way that cats seem to prefer?

I don’t know whether this is “magical realism” or whatever. Cats don’t have to grasp literary theory if the story being told is as remorselessly compelling as this. I think it’s far more useful to study the bare-bones directness of Mr. Murakami’s prose, the professional insistence on seeing what happened next and how it happened, and then the nearly throwaway touch of poetry. Take Kafka in his cabin in the woods, the first morning when he wakes up and sees where he is: “The morning light pours down through the tall trees onto the open spaces in front of the cabin, sunbeams everywhere and mist floating like freshly minted souls.”

Let me put it this way: I came to Japanese culture through the movies first-essentially through Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. In Kurosawa, I always felt the exhilaration of a boyish attempt to make Japan accessible to the West-it was history as a reassuring tourist movie. In Ozu, I believed I discovered the character of the Japanese family and the close yet secret interiors where they lived and waited. But in Mizoguchi, I seemed to be confronting Japanese light and space and the strange sense of a view of fate and nature quite unlike anything I knew from Europe or America.

It seemed then, and it seems to me now, that Mizoguchi is the greatest master in Japanese cinema, and there’s nothing in his work that I love more than the casual description of space which then turns into a haunted or hallowed place. Mr. Murakami has that same touch, yet he applies it to a modern country, where characters may listen to Prince or Schubert on their Walkmans, where Kafka stays up at night reading about Adolf Eichmann, and in which the narrator has as much appetite for the look of a cat and the jarring sight of Nakata in “a salmon pink Jack Nicklaus golf shirt.”

Is this a real Japan, or is it simply the vision of a great novelist? It’s not easy to offer anything like an explanation, and in the end, I don’t think Mr. Murakami is ready to settle for a world susceptible to explanation. You can say that this book proceeds by cross-cutting, going from one story to another, but then you have to account for the reader being as hooked as surely as if he were reading Agatha Christie or Hemingway, where the story is meant to go straight and taut like a fishing line with a trout on the hook. So I think it’s the cutting that’s the motor, every bit as much as the separate stories and their use of common suspense. For it’s in the cutting and the departures that the element of rhyme or similarity begins to assert itself, and all that Haruki Murakami will settle for finally, I think, is that yes, there are things (like blood and clear places in the forest) that are like other things. And that is why this Japanese kid teenager is like the earlier Kafka-what was his name?-the one whose very sharp features give every suggestion that if he couldn’t exactly talk to cats, he sure knew what they meant.

David Thomson’s most recent book is The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (Knopf).