Saturday, August 6, 2011

Kafka on the Shore – a Fantasy Bildungsroman

First off, I would like to thank my friend Steve on recommending this book. Without his recommendation, I would have never tried Murakami Haruki again. In fact, I was disappointed big time (really big time) when I first read Murakami some 15 years ago: Norwegian Wood. Simply put, it was a phony piece of novel-ling outdated by about 100 years. Read, for example, Natsume Soseki’s I Am Cat, and you instantly understand what I mean. I Am Cat was actually written about 80 years before Norwegian Wood, and is much more modern and mature.
To get back to Kafka on the Shore, yes, this is a good book. I recommend this book to whoever likes inner narratives and does not mind some dash of (actually a lot of) fantasy. I like this book so much that I consider reading more from Murakami. Thanks, Steve.

One thing I like about this novel is the freedom of the narrative. It is not bound by reason in its traditional sense. Nakata begins travelling before knowing where to go. The “entrance stone” is located by Colonel Sanders, a concept. Kafka takes the soldiers in the wood as granted, and follows them into the land unknown. Hoshino knows what to do next, instinctively.
The freedom actually belongs to the narrative itself, and goes beyond the author. Many questions are never answered. But readers are not left unsatisfied, because they share the freedom of those people in the narrative, and of the author. Was the blood on Kafka’s shirt from his father? Did Johnnie Walker actually kill the cats? Is Miss Saeki Kafka’s mother? How can the living soul that visited Kafka in the night explained? What about the girl in the village in the wood? What was the thing that Hoshino killed?
Many authors, on just grounds, try to design their world without flaws – with no question unanswered. They try their best to make no loopholes, and are confounded when readers find one and send them an e-mail. Is this really necessary? Yes, of course, most of the time. (Why do you think Stephen King is so good?)
However, a discourse is not a monopolistic property of the author. Jacque Derrida defines “textuality” as an interaction between the creator and the interpreter (reader). Leaving questions unanswered, or more pro-actively put, embracing the freedom of fantasy enriches this textuality in many senses. Why are Shakespeare’s masterpieces so rich? Because there are so much to be ruminated over, again and again.

But Kafka on the Shore can be simply branded as a bildungsroman, as it really is. The plot itself is a very typical one of many bildungsromans – a return journey. Kafka comes back to Tokyo, to the empty huge house of his father’s. This overlaps with the journey of Nakata’s, where he returns to his hometown in Kyushu after such a long time. (Even Hoshino returns to his old life, after all.)
The protagonist in a bildungsroman returns home, with a harvest. For the protagonist, Kafka, it is his acceptance of what he is and what his life is about. He returns to where he came from, just like Goldmund (in Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund), but with a transformation. His attempt to escape from reality (or fate) ends in a return journey, with a mature mind that can embrace rather than estrange.

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