Your Complete Guide to The Absurdist Fiction of Haruki Murakami
I admit it, I am finding myself out of words. I have been staring for hours at Murakami’s book covers, trying to read back his quotes. Just another failed attempt to get me inside the world of Haruki Murakami.
In Murakami’s world, there are no such things as barriers or roofs, Murakami doesn’t write to put himself into any scientific life law. He doesn’t care to send a moral message, God forbidden, or even to clarify himself in words. He is the master of creating an absurdist world, an absurdist world where dreams and reality are no longer separated and where our consciousness, understanding of life and our being are all a mere metaphor.
NOTE: Kafka on the Shore was my second Murakami book after Norwegian Wood. My first time ever reading a surrealist absurd novel started here with Kafka on the Shore. Reading it was a surrealist experience in the truest sense, and since its genre is hard to define or categorise in one article, summing up the book or even analysing it, may sound just crazy. Here is a look at the book, an attempt to analyse some of its absurdism, although sometimes the closest thing I could get to answering the questions Murakami raise in here, is by asking more. I’ll try my best to put all my reflections of the book. It pisses me off that there are very few posts about this novel, it’s one of the best books I have ever read, it’s an odyssey, and I believe the internet needs to have more reviews about it. Here’s an in-depth attempt to understand the novel and its absurdism.
The first main character in the book is Kafka; a 15 years old boy, who from the first time we get to know, appears as a troubled soul with a clear problematic identity; in the first chapters he appears conversing with “A Boy Named Crow” -his split identity or perhaps his alter ego-. Kafka is a person who wishes to live under a different skin, have a different DNA, and become a whole different someone. His Conscious of Being causes him pain. A feeling of alienation and isolation is sensed from Kafka toward his surroundings and his existence.
“I can do my best not to let any emotions show, keep my eyes from revealing anything, bulk up my muscles, but there’s not much I can do about my looks. I’m stuck with my father’s long, thick eyebrows and the deep lines between them. I could probably kill him if I wanted to – I’m definitely strong enough – and I can erase my mother from my memory. But there’s no way to erase the DNA they passed down to me. If I want to drive that away I’d have to get rid of me”
Kafka, who’s been living with his father after his mother left him taking his elder sister along with her, hears of his father’s prophecy that said he would kill his father, have sex with his mother and then his sister. Out of fear and anger, he escapes home thinking he could escape his fate, as well.
The second character is Nakata, an old man who has been a bit simple-minded since a mysterious childhood accident that deprived him of the ability to read and write and gave him instead the gift of being able to talk to cats. Nakata lives in a half shadow, his past and future don’t matter. He lives in the present only. He’s empty inside and his life seems to be a checklist series; he finds purposes and goals to fill his days; searching for other people’s cats, searching for things he cannot understand.
Of Free Will and the Oedipus Myth:
Anyone who is familiar with The Oedipus Myth will see the resemblance between Kafka’s story and Oedipus’s; both raise questions of free will and the possibility of escaping fate. King Laius, Oedipus’s father, saw a prophecy, too, a prophecy that said Oedipus would grow up to kill him and then marry his own mother, and as a result of that, King Laius decided to leave the newly born Oedipus all alone to die in some mountain place. Oedipus survives it and grows up to learn of the prophecy and again tries his best not to fulfil it; he runs away from his home and through his escape, through his determination not to follow the fate he was told he’d have, we see how all of his efforts were the same exact things that led him to it. All his efforts had led him to one trajectory, and that is his fate. Despite the fact that Oedipus tried to outfit his shameful fate, but all the same, he chooses to blind himself when he realises that he’d killed his father, married his mother and even had children from her. Out of shame, he blinds himself.
”Banish me, hide me, slay me! Throw me forth into the sea, where I may sink from the view. I pray you, deign to touch one so afflicted, And do not fear: there is no man alive Can bear this load of evil but myself”
Now, Oedipus and Kafka are both a representation of men who try to outfit fate; both try to change their shameful fate and find themselves failing, their story may deny the idea of free will and maybe they are set to remind us of the absence of coincidences in our lives and that everything is meant to be; our consciousness, the objects that we interact with, the persons that we think we are, is all in one dream, a dream of being a person or having a life. We are just controlled robots blabbing.
All the ways had led Kafka to a library where he befriends Oshima -later we know he’s a transgender, in the library, Kafka resides. The place is portrayed as some sort of Eden. A place where Kafka can learn from and find peace in. The place is under Miss Saeki’s charge, a slim woman who is in her mid-forties. A woman who may be Kafka’s mother. In slow pace, we see how the sadness in her eyes, her talks, her moves, and the mere sight of her fall heavy on Kafka. He felt something with her; a connection, a past living experience.
Kafka spends his days in the library reading and contemplating life and for a moment, he thinks he’s found peace, his most feared premonitions will not happen, at least not here in the library, and not by him. For Nakata will be the one who will fulfil the first prophecy, Nakata’s path will lead him to kill Kafka’s father, embodied in Johnnie Walker, and the next day Kafka wakes up with blood on him -not his- nearby a shrine.
Shortly after the killing of Johnnie Walker, the sky starts raining sardines and Nakata seemed to predicate that before happening! Murakami said that everything is a metaphor, and thus, I see that maybe the raining of the sardines might be a metaphor. A metaphor suggesting that the world has lost some of its physical laws when Nakata killed the father of Kafka instead of Kafka himself. The world got one version of fate, and even though Kafka thought he was able to escape it, he still couldn't. When the first prophecy was fulfilled, Kafka spends the next day with an intense feeling of regret, fear, and shame as if he has killed his father himself. Kafka’s fate was meant to happen either way and his desire to kill his father, even though he physically tried not to, was the thing that led Nakata into doing it.
Is free will an illusion? Is that what Murakami trying to say?
Now, I have come to realise that the only way to understand Kafka on the Shore is by looking into it from a philosophical point of view. And while the story of Kafka’s curse seems to argue whether free-will is an illusion; an idea that exists only make us believe that we have a so-called a power to choose, Determinism is one theory that denies the idea of free will and suggest that all our past, present, future events have taken place before or, to look at it from a religious point of view as Predestination believe, that our actions have been written by God, a prior state long ago before we even existed, and we are not able to change a thing about it. I could feel themes of Determinism throughout Kafka’s story, and it made me wonder does, believing in Determinism, free Kafka from the consequences of his sins since he is no longer capable of choosing? Why then does he still feel guilty all the same? And if we suppose that our lives are already determined\written and can NOT be changed, then what is the meaning of this so-called life? If our actions were predetermined, how are we supposed to hold responsibilities? Why not take the one and only action we can take and that is suicide?
Kafka first experiences his definition of life throughout flashing images “You will kill your father, violate your mother and sister” and out of anger, he curses his father, curses his skin and being and physically tires to prevent himself from getting into it to his fate, but in his dreams or perhaps in his unconsciousness, he fulfills the curse in a way or another. Kafka is inside a storm that didn’t blow from far away; his storm was inside him.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverised bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine”
Kafka realises that his abstract view of existence is a dream and he’s experiencing it consciously and sometimes unconsciously. All of his desires, sins, virtues, his inherited features, his earned skills, all he loves and hates is but a dream, and even though he didn’t choose this dream, the body he is in, he is still, all the same, responsible for each of its sins, even before committing them. Hiding in a library or at the end of the earth won’t erase the fate that is written in Kafka’s veins.
Oshima quotes Yeat’s poem, in some pages of a book:
“It’s all a question imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said. In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.”
The idea here is that not remembering or rather not knowing if Kafka had actually killed his father through Nakata or not, does not give him any absolution whatsoever. Kafka is responsible for the skin he was born with, and that it comes from it, through it, and because of it is his responsibility to deal with, there are no differences between what you want and what you end up doing. Murakami here tries to unlock our definition of Morality; he mixes up the taken actions and the hidden ones; even though Kafka, physically, escapes his fate, part of him still wanted to kill his father, the father who put a curse on him, and for this desire, he is responsible and thus feels the weight of his non-taken crime.
Of Reconstruction and The Weight of Time:
“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already a memory.”
The first curse happened, through Nakata, the second one is on the waiting list. While staying in the library, Kafka sees a 15 years old ghost of Miss. Saeki in his bedroom. The living spirit of Saeki is frozen in a specific time when Saeki and her lover were together in love, a love that was shattered when her boyfriend moved to Tokyo and was murdered there. Unable to overcome this, Saeki rejects the rest of life after her loss and spends her days as if she’s dead making up for the lost time. Her living spirit -the ghost- leaves her body every night to return to the room once owned by her lover and gazes at his portrait on the wall. The room Kafka sleeps in now.
When Kafka sees her for the first time, he stares at her endlessly, studying her features, her beauty, her surrealist body. Saeki’s ghost appears unconscious as if she’s trance; she seems to be looking beyond Kafka, and he pretends to be sleeping only to continue looking at her. Sitting on his bedroom desk while Kafka examines her:
“She has to be a ghost. First of all, she’s just too beautiful. Her features are gorgeous, but it’s not only that. She’s so perfect I know she can’t be real. She’s like a person who stepped right out of a dream. The purity of her beauty gives me a feeling close to sadness – a very natural feeling, though one that only something extraordinary could induce.”
The image of her has found its way to Kafka’s heart for she had stirred the sadness within him. She was not a new object to him; she is a deleted memory he once had, she steps on him casting a deja vu; a sensational heavyweight that she has happened before, and he realizes that his rejection is no longer an option; he must surrender to his fate and accept it; His first escape’s led him to what he was afraid of, his escape wasn’t a coincidence, but rather a pre-decided fate, one that cannot be changed. You see things were fated long before he even existed, before him knowing so, and he’s no longer able to choose because he already had; in some previous life, in a dream, or in another container he had made this choice. The only reason why he is here is to know why he did; his haunting past and problematic identity is all gone once he looks at the eyes of what he was afraid of the most; diving completely into the blackest evil imaginable, one which he tried to outwit, gave him his freedom and redemption. Losing all control was freedom.
“Time weighs down on you like an old, ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to sleep through it. But even if you go to the ends of the earth, you won’t be able to escape it. Still, you have to go there- to the edge of the world. There’s something you can’t do unless you get there.”
Metaphors, Riddles, and Futility:
Murakami talks a lot of metaphors here; it’s implied and spoken clearly often through the characters. Murakami writes about how our bodies are containers of a larger thing called souls. And how differently we should look at those two. Your hands, your eyes, the blood running through your veins, all of the inherited features, all of their inconveniences is the outer shell, Oshima says, if we to reverse the outer shell and the essence- consider the outer shell the essence and the essence only the shell—our lives might be a whole lot easier to understand. Murakami here asks, indirectly, to deny all of our limitations and definitions. Kafka’s mum maybe his mum or maybe she’s a passing soul with a different container. Kafka may be Kafka, her son, but he may also be the reincarnated lover of Miss. Saeki. We never get to the point where we are 100% sure that Miss. Saeki is Kafka’s mother. We think she is, but there is no clear evidence. Now, deny her body, her container, deny your pre-judgmental\pre-supposing ideas of her parental relationship with Kafka, deny everything but leave out their souls, this is a place with no containers, is it still wrong for Kafka to sleep with her? Do our morals counteract with time, space and knowledge? In other words, consider this; your soul being out of this time, out of your shallow knowledge, out of this container which you didn’t choose, is your soul still obligated to follow the same basic values and morals you are following now? And how much do we really know of time and souls?
“Everything is a metaphor”
Through the uncertainty of Kafka’s idea of his sister being his real sister, his idea of the mother being his real mother, Murakami here breaks up all the rules we think we know of morals. Moral codes don’t exist in here. He creates a place of metaphors and we are unconsciously/consciously going through it. Time, space, memories, dreams and reality float under the same surface in a way that makes you isolate yourself from what you’ve already been taught to learn, to deny it, and believe that nothing can be understood perfectly. We are blabbing robots with manual guides and we think we know. Murakami takes your manual guide and tears it all apart next to you, and he’s probably enjoying it.
Nakata can be seen as a metaphor; Nakata’s character seems hollow and empty. He lacks character; he’s a vessel, a container that both represents-remotely- Kafka’s search for his true self and also acts as an embodied portrayal of Kafka’s internal conflicts. Here're some of the riddles he uses in the novel of Nakata and other things:
When Nakata first kills Kafka’s father, sardines start to rain. Now, this could be, as I said earlier, fate’s angry response, or perhaps it shows the great power Kafka feels after getting his father killed.
Nakata loses the ability to talking to cats after Kafka loses his innocence?
Nakata seems to be going after Saeki, to send her to the other world, she asks him to burn her diaries. Later we see her in the other world and she says she’s slowly losing her past memories and pretty much everything. A metaphor for burning her diaries? The thing we do now will follow us in the afterlife?
After Nakata leaves, the ability to talk to cats goes to Hoshino. Again maybe a metaphor for the soul travelling of Nakata to Hoshino.
Oshima is a transgender in the novel, and in Oedipus play there is Tiresias -famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years-, the blind seer who knew of Oedipus’s curse and compelled him to face the truth of who he really was, Oshima doesn’t only resemble Tiresias in Hermaphrodite, but also he is the person who offers Kafka a place in Miss Saeki’s library, bringing him closer to the fulfilment of the prophecy. Coincidence?
Kafka chose to name himself, we don’t know what his real name is. He chooses Kafka ”incidentally, means “crow” and his alter-ego is called The Boy Named Crow, as well.
The blood seems to be some sort of a symbol that I couldn’t figure out. At the beginning of the novel, Crow says: “you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.” and we see at the end Kafka licking his mother’s -Saeki’s- blood: "Her blood goes down, deep in my throat. It’s quietly absorbed by the dry outer layer of my heart. Only now do I understand how much I’ve wanted that blood”
Kafka’s artist father was best known for a work titled Labyrinth, another reference to the Greek mythical maze; an elaborate maze which Theseus was forced to navigate to slay the Minotaur monster- hidden in its depths. In the novel, Oshima explains the origin of the concept of the labyrinth to Kafka:
“It was the ancient Mesopotamians. They pulled out animal intestines—sometimes human intestines, I expect—and used the shape to predict the future…So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside.”
I couldn’t think of a better symbol of life than The Labyrinth; life is truly one hell of a maze and another, and the monster in it can represent so many of our fears, hopes, and sins, the only way to our identity reconstruction is in one word guts, as Oshima said, the striving to be, to dream, and to sin is all a necessary part of our lives. Life’s meaning is found in the few moments when one could sense the absolute clarity of his path, the deja vu sensational images, the sharpness of things, and the forgiveness one could offer to himself. Kafka’s forgiveness for his mother gave him that kind of clarity; to let go, to understand that everything is exactly the way is meant to be freed him and redeemed him. Although moments like those don’t last no matter how we cling to them. choosing to live, choosing to love life for what it is, no matter what it is, is the guts.
“When you wake up, you’ll be part of a brand new world.”