Chris Paling suspends his disbelief for Haruki Murakami
A teacher leads a group of schoolchildren on a mushroom picking expedition. On their way to the woods they glimpse a flash of silver high in the sky. It's 1944, Japan, and they assume it to be a B-29, but the sight of the American bomber doesn't dampen their spirits. The war, after all, is being conducted a long way away from Rice Bowl Hill. Having reached their chosen spot, they discard their backpacks and go off into the trees. Ten minutes later a child collapses. Soon, all of them except for the teacher are unconscious. She assumes them to have been poisoned by mushrooms and runs to the village for help. When the doctor arrives he wonders if they may have been affected by nerve gas dropped by the B-29. But then the children begin to recover. Afterwards, none of them show any illeffects, except for one, Satoru Nakata, who doesn't regain consciousness and is removed to a military hospital, never to return to the town. Fourteen pages further in to Kafka on the Shore we encounter Nakata again. He's now an old man, and we learn that since the incident on Rice Bowl Hill he's been able to talk to cats, an aptitude that has served him well in his long career as a lost cat tracker.
It's a measure of Haruki Murakami's technique that we accept such sequences of bizarre events in his new novel as perfectly logical. Nakata's peculiar ability is rendered as neither ludicrous nor twee, and when fish, and later leeches, shower from the sky, we don't question the plausibility. But then Murakami has built a formidable reputation writing contemporary stories that borrow from Japanese myths and fables. Like his brilliant fellow countryman, Kazuo Ishiguro, he's a delicate craftsman for whom the space between words is as important as the carefully ordered words themselves. He uses language with precision even when he adopts the slangy firstperson present in which the majority of this story is told.
In fact the cattracker's tale is the secondary narrative in his latest work. The primary one is the oedipal odyssey of fifteenyearold Kafka Tamura who runs away from a sinister father in search of the mother who abandoned him as a child. In his choice of protagonist, Murakami is running true to form. Pick up any of his fiction and at the centre of it you'll find a male student, mentally frozen in midadolescence, music loving, bemused (though not confused) and priapic. The women in Murakami's world are sexually generous, tender and forgiving and they often hold the key to the mysteries of the world.
His characters inhabit a landscape which is recognisably contemporary Japan, but it's one in which the streets are lit by neon and dominated by American advertising hoardings. Colonel Sanders pops up as a character. The leisurewear tends to have American labels. The music is 'cool jazz'. And, when the weather changes, 'hard rain' falls. The B29 that may or may not have rendered the schoolchildren unconscious signifies the cultural bombardment of the East by the West. The writer/director Sofia Coppola has also exploited the sense of dislocation this promotes in her recent film Lost in Translation.
Some of the rewards of this novel lie in trying to unravel the puzzles Murakami sets the reader. There are more than enough to keep the pages turning (Is the girl he meets on a bus his sister? Is the woman he sleeps with his mother? Why does the catslaughtering artist choose to die?). But don't expect easy answers. There aren't any. Indeed, his Japanese publisher has been so inundated by bemused readers that they have set up a website to explain some of the mysteries of the book. The site has so far generated over 8,000 emails and Murakami has responded personally to over a thousand of them. It's curious that he feels the need to enter into such a dialogue with his readership, especially when he has gone on record to suggest that Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles but no solutions. Instead he tells us he's constructed the novel in such a way as to make several riddles combine and thus the "possibility of a solution takes shape."
Ultimately, the riddles are less important than the journey they're designed to lead us on.
Kafka on the Shore is an intriguing novel. It may be too long and lose tension before the end, but Murakami has conjured a world which is a pleasure to visit. Like few other writers working today, reading him you get a real sense of what it is to be him. It's a strange and rewarding consciousness to share. And, having done so, you can't help feeling as Nakata the cattracker's companion did when he told him: "I'm never bored when I'm with you. All kinds of offthewall things happen, but that much I can say for sure being with you's never boring."
Kafka on the shore is available from Amazon (UK)