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    Required Reading | January 16, 2015

    Required Reading: Books That Changed Us

    We tend to think of reading as a cerebral endeavor, but every once in a while, it can spur action. The following books — ranging from... Continue »

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Kafka on the Shore


Kafka on the Shore Cover




Cash isn't the only thing I take from my father's study when I leave home. I take a small, old gold lighter--I like the design and feel of it--and a folding knife with a really sharp blade. Made to skin deer, it has a five-inch blade and a nice heft. Probably something he bought on one of his trips abroad. I also take a sturdy, bright pocket flashlight out of a drawer. Plus sky blue Revo sunglasses to disguise my age.

I think about taking my father's favorite Sea-Dweller Oyster Rolex. It's a beautiful watch, but something flashy will only attract attention. My cheap plastic Casio watch with an alarm and stopwatch will do just fine, and might actually be more useful. Reluctantly, I return the Rolex to its drawer.

From the back of another drawer I take out a photo of me and my older sister when we were little, the two of us on a beach somewhere with grins plastered across our faces. My sister's looking off to the side so half her face is in shadow and her smile is neatly cut in half. It's like one of those Greek tragedy masks in a textbook that's half one idea and half the opposite. Light and dark. Hope and despair. Laughter and sadness. Trust and loneliness. For my part I'm staring straight ahead, undaunted, at the camera. Nobody else is there at the beach. My sister and I have on swimsuits--hers a red floral-print one-piece, mine some baggy old blue trunks. I'm holding a plastic stick in my hand. White foam is washing over our feet.

Who took this, and where and when, I have no clue. And how could I have looked so happy? And why did my father keep just that one photo? The whole thing is a total mystery. I must have been three, my sister nine. Did we ever really get along that well? I have no memory of ever going to the beach with my family. No memory of going anywhere with them. No matter, though--there is no way I'm going to leave that photo with my father, so I put it in my wallet. I don't have any photos of my mother. My father threw them all away.

After giving it some thought I decide to take the cell phone with me. Once he finds out I've taken it, my father will probably get the phone company to cut off service. Still, I toss it into my backpack, along with the adapter. Doesn't add much weight, so why not. When it doesn't work anymore I'll just chuck it.

Just the bare necessities, that's all I need. Choosing which clothes to take is the hardest thing. I'll need a couple sweaters and pairs of underwear. But what about shirts and trousers? Gloves, mufflers, shorts, a coat? There's no end to it. One thing I do know, though. I don't want to wander around some strange place with a huge backpack that screams out, Hey, everybody, check out the runaway! Do that and someone is sure to sit up and take notice. Next thing you know the police will haul me in and I'll be sent straight home. If I don't wind up in some gang first.

Any place cold is definitely out, I decide. Easy enough, just choose the opposite--a warm place. Then I can leave the coat and gloves behind, and get by with half the clothes. I pick out wash-and-wear-type things, the lightest ones I have, fold them neatly, and stuff them in my backpack. I also pack a three-season sleeping bag, the kind that rolls up nice and tight, toilet stuff, a rain poncho, notebook and pen, a Walkman and ten discs--got to have my music--along with a spare rechargeable battery. That's about it. No need for any cooking gear, which is too heavy and takes up too much room, since I can buy food at the local convenience store.

It takes a while but I'm able to subtract a lot of things from my list. I add things, cross them off, then add a whole other bunch and cross them off, too.

My fifteenth birthday is the ideal time to run away from home. Any earlier and it'd be too soon. Any later and I would have missed my chance.

During my first two years in junior high, I'd worked out, training myself for this day. I started practicing judo in the first couple years of grade school, and still went sometimes in junior high. But I didn't join any school teams. Whenever I had the time I'd jog around the school grounds, swim, or go to the local gym. The young trainers there gave me free lessons, showing me the best kind of stretching exercises and how to use the fitness machines to bulk up. They taught me which muscles you use every day and which ones can only be built up with machines, even the correct way to do a bench press. I'm pretty tall to begin with, and with all this exercise I've developed pretty broad shoulders and pecs. Most strangers would take me for seventeen. If I ran away looking my actual age, you can imagine all the problems that would cause.

Other than the trainers at the gym and the housekeeper who comes to our house every other day--and of course the bare minimum required to get by at school--I barely talk to anyone. For a long time my father and I have avoided seeing each other. We live under the same roof, but our schedules are totally different. He spends most of his time in his studio, far away, and I do my best to avoid him.

The school I'm going to is a private junior high for kids who are upper-class, or at least rich. It's the kind of school where, unless you really blow it, you're automatically promoted to the high school on the same campus. All the students dress neatly, have nice straight teeth, and are boring as hell. Naturally I have zero friends. I've built a wall around me, never letting anybody inside and trying not to venture outside myself. Who could like somebody like that? They all keep an eye on me, from a distance. They might hate me, or even be afraid of me, but I'm just glad they didn't bother me. Because I had tons of things to take care of, including spending a lot of my free time devouring books in the school library.

I always paid close attention to what was said in class, though. Just like the boy named Crow suggested.

The facts and techniques or whatever they teach you in class isn't going to be very useful in the real world, that's for sure. Let's face it, teachers are basically a bunch of morons. But you've got to remember this: you're running away from home. You probably won't have any chance to go to school anymore, so like it or not you'd better absorb whatever you can while you've got the chance. Become like a sheet of blotting paper and soak it all in. Later on you can figure out what to keep and what to unload.

I did what he said, like I almost always do. My brain like a sponge, I focused on every word said in class and let it all sink in, figured out what it meant, and committed everything to memory. Thanks to this, I barely had to study outside of class, but always came out near the top on exams.

My muscles were getting hard as steel, even as I grew more withdrawn and quiet. I tried hard to keep my emotions from showing so that no one--classmates and teachers alike--had a clue what I was thinking. Soon I'd be launched into the rough adult world, and I knew I'd have to be tougher than anybody if I wanted to survive.

My eyes in the mirror are cold as a lizard's, my expression fixed and unreadable. I can't remember the last time I laughed or even showed a hint of a smile to other people. Even to myself.

I'm not trying to imply I can keep up this silent, isolated facade all the time. Sometimes the wall I've erected around me comes crumbling down. It doesn't happen very often, but sometimes, before I even realize what's going on, there I am--naked and defenseless and totally confused. At times like that I always feel an omen calling out to me, like a dark, omnipresent pool of water.

A dark, omnipresent pool of water.

It was probably always there, hidden away somewhere. But when the time comes it silently rushes out, chilling every cell in your body. You drown in that cruel flood, gasping for breath. You cling to a vent near the ceiling, struggling, but the air you manage to breathe is dry and burns your throat. Water and thirst, cold and heat--these supposedly opposite elements combine to assault you.

The world is a huge space, but the space that will take you in--and it doesn't have to be very big--is nowhere to be found. You seek a voice, but what do you get? Silence. You look for silence, but guess what? All you hear over and over and over is the voice of this omen. And sometimes this prophetic voice pushes a secret switch hidden deep inside your brain.

Your heart is like a great river after a long spell of rain, spilling over its banks. All signposts that once stood on the ground are gone, inundated and carried away by that rush of water. And still the rain beats down on the surface of the river. Every time you see a flood like that on the news you tell yourself: That's it. That's my heart.

Before running away from home I wash my hands and face, trim my nails, swab out my ears, and brush my teeth. I take my time, making sure my whole body's well scrubbed. Being really clean is sometimes the most important thing there is. I gaze carefully at my face in the mirror. Genes I'd gotten from my father and mother--not that I have any recollection of what she looked like--created this face. I can do my best to not 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 sure 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 wanted to drive that away I'd have to get rid of me.

There's an omen contained in that. A mechanism buried inside of me.

A mechanism buried inside of you.

I switch off the light and leave the bathroom. A heavy, damp stillness lies over the house. The whispers of people who don't exist, the breath of the dead. I look around, standing stock-still, and take a deep breath. The clock shows three p.m., the two hands cold and distant. They're pretending to be noncommittal, but I know they're not on my side. It's nearly time for me to say good-bye. I pick up my backpack and slip it over my shoulders. I've carried it any number of times, but now it feels so much heavier.

Shikoku, I decide. That's where I'll go. There's no particular reason it has to be Shikoku, only that studying the map I got the feeling that's where I should head. The more I look at the map--actually every time I study it--the more I feel Shikoku tugging at me. It's far south of Tokyo, separated from the mainland by water, with a warm climate. I've never been there, have no friends or relatives there, so if somebody started looking for me--which I kind of doubt--Shikoku would be the last place they'd think of.

I pick up the ticket I'd reserved at the counter and climb aboard the night bus. This is the cheapest way to get to Takamatsu--just a shade over ninety bucks. Nobody pays me any attention, asks how old I am, or gives me a second look. The bus driver mechanically checks my ticket.

Only a third of the seats are taken. Most passengers are traveling alone, like me, and the bus is strangely silent. It's a long trip to Takamatsu, ten hours according to the schedule, and we'll be arriving early in the morning. But I don't mind. I've got plenty of time. The bus pulls out of the station at eight, and I push my seat back. No sooner do I settle down than my consciousness, like a battery that's lost its charge, starts to fade away, and I fall asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night a hard rain begins to fall. I wake up every once in a while, part the chintzy curtain at the window, and gaze out at the highway rushing by. Raindrops beat against the glass, blurring streetlights alongside the road that stretch off into the distance at identical intervals like they were set down to measure the earth. A new light rushes up close and in an instant fades off behind us. I check my watch and see it's past midnight. Automatically shoved to the front, my fifteenth birthday makes its appearance.

"Hey, happy birthday," the boy named Crow says.

"Thanks," I reply.

The omen is still with me, though, like a shadow. I check to make sure the wall around me is still in place. Then I close the curtain and fall back asleep.

Chapter 2

The following document, classified Top Secret by the U.S. Department of Defense, was released to the public in 1986 through the Freedom of Information Act. The document is now kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and can be accessed there.

The investigations recorded here were carried out under the direction of Major James P. Warren from March to April 1946. The field investigation in [name deleted] county, Yamanashi Prefecture, was conducted by Second Lieutenant Robert O'Connor and Master Sergeant Harold Katayama. The interrogator in all interviews was Lt. O'Connor. Sgt. Katayama handled the Japanese interpreting, and Private William Cohen prepared the documents.

Interviews were conducted over a twelve-day period in the reception room of the [name deleted] town town hall in Yamanashi Prefecture. The following witnesses responded individually to Lt. O'Connor's questions: a female teacher at the [deleted] town [deleted] county public school, a doctor residing in the same town, two patrolmen assigned to the local police precinct, and six children.

The appended 1:10,000 and 1:2,000 maps of the area in question were provided by the Topographic Institute of the Ministry of Home Affairs.


Dated: May 12, 1946

Title: Report on the Rice Bowl Hill Incident, 1944

Document Number: PTYX-722-8936745-42213-WWN

Copyright © 2005 by Haruki Murakami

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Rick Vigorous, November 6, 2014 (view all comments by Rick Vigorous)
The summary (without giving too much away) sounds pretty absurd: A boy runs away from home on his fifteenth birthday and becomes close with a woman who may be his long-lost mother, and is running a private library together with a transgender man who loves listening to Schubert and driving too fast. Meanwhile a kindly, mentally disabled man who can speak to cats and makes fish rain from the sky enlists the help of a young truck driver and journeys across Japan on a mystical quest.

The frequent description of Murakami's work as dreamlike and surreal is entirely appropriate. The book is highly engaging, entertaining, and hard to put down. Funky plot elements and magical happenings aside, the real strength of the book lies in the richness of its characters and the world that they inhabit. After reading about Kafka’s adventures, I’ve had some unexpected glimpses into the inner worlds of such characters as a transgender Japanese librarian and a mentally disabled man who talks to cats. And if I learned a thing or two about Japanese libraries and Schubert’s piano sonatas along the way, then so much the better.
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Inquisitor of Irony, August 8, 2012 (view all comments by Inquisitor of Irony)
Having never heard of Murakami prior to the publication of Kafka on the Shore, I resisted purchasing it time and again. After all, it does not follow that simply because one employs a particularly beloved signifier in a title, that the object signified by said title accrues some metaphysical value, which is not credited to texts bereft of such clever strategies. Indeed, one must be quite bold to actually invoke "Kafka" before many who will examine and possibly read it has any other experience of one's work. As it turns out, Murakami is absolutely justified in his appropriation of Kafka's name in title of this wondrous work of imaginative brilliance.

Notwithstanding the very real and significant contributions Freud made to our understanding to the workings of the mind, I maintain that his true claim to fame is as the greatest mythologist of the 20th century, especially in his later writings, and most especially in his books dealing with the socio-political foundations of society--The Future of an Illusion & Totem and Taboo come to mind--and commentary on such relations, which are found throughout his work. In order to walk away from these amazing books having gained anything of value, one has to be willing to give Freud a certain amount of artistic license and suspend disbelief. Having done so, the payoff is immense. For example, I found that The Future of an Illusion is a perfect way to off-set Aristotle, J. S. Mill, and old Manny Kant, in that it offers a such a radically different account of the foundations of and motivation to morality that students must rethink all of the theories from beginning to end. (I don't use Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals for reasons of temporal economy.)

A similar act of faith is the very condition of the possibility of reading much more than 15 pages of this work of shockingly expansive imagination. As something of a fetishist for magical realism, I am more than prepared to have characters give birth to cats, dance with the devil, and defy the never questioned convention that holds that nature is ruled by certain unbreakable laws, such as gravity, when, in fact, the strongest claim that we can make as to the continuation gravity's felicitous effects is that they have not failed to obtain to this point in human history, as far as we know. I must say, however, that neither de Bernieres (I am thinking not of Corelli's Mandolin, but of his early trilogy, which elaborates the history of the fantastic village of Cochadebajo, which is in the same metaphysical neighborhood as the village to which Kafka Tamura, the title character as you will have guessed, travels in seeking to achieve what Nietzsche calls the most difficult task: becoming what one is.)nor Borges, Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita) nor Allende, not even Garcia Marquez,the Master himself, prepared me in the least for what lay ahead in Kafka on the Shore.

Frankly, Murakami is in a league all his own. He requires not simply that we suspend disbelief, but that, in addition, we suspend all belief as well. In order to fully enjoy such an adventure as he has created in Kafka on the Shore, it is necessary that we do everything we can to approach the text with a tabula rosa. The less we know--or, shall I say ironic as this combination of words may appear, the less we believe ourselves to know, the more receptive we will be to the actuality of the work of art that is in front of us.

There are plenty of talented, even brilliant writers. There are even quite a few whose talents reach far beyond a technical competence for putting a story together in a coherent and compelling fashion, but I have never encountered a writer with the temerity of Murakami. Kafka on the Shore would be just as easily at home in a class introducing metaphysics, specifically regarding time and identity, as in a survey of postmodern or contemporary fiction. Indeed, I would have hesitated not to give it a double classification Literature/Philosophy were I a publisher more interested in veracity than in the philosophy of money.

One could easily write a book on Murakami's theory of time, the profound elaborations of which I have not seen the likes of since Faulkner's Oh, Jerusalem I Forget Thee, or Wild Palms. Likewise, there is an entire physics of identity, which lay at the heart of the book. One, moreover, which is rather Freudian, to say the least. For as it turns out, Kafka seeks nothing more than to avoid his father's curse that he will be murdered by Kafka, who will then sleep with this mother and his sister: Aeschylus by the Shore just does not have the right ring to it.

Starting off from this premise--of which the reader remains ignorant well into the text--Kafka, who is 15, runs away from home and by virtue of a force no more under the power of his will than pure contingency, he ends up in Takamatsu. As serendipity would have it, this is the very same town to which Mr. Nakata, who has murdered Kafka's father--ignoring the fact that he somehow deposits bloody evidence some distance away from the scene of the crime, where Kafka happens to have blacked out--also eventually travels. Mr. Nakata is one of the more interesting characters in literary history. He is not very smart, not being able to read or write, but he has the singular ability to converse with cats. That is, until he encounters Johnny Walker; whether Mr. Walker is red, black, or blue we have no indication. Suffice it to say that Colonel Sanders is dealing in something more than 12 original herbs and spices these days; though the women for whom he serves as pimp are spicier than anything one may find on one's fried hen, if the example we are introduced to is any indication. Yet, he remains a friend to the community and not simply a trafficker in sex, for without him neither Kafka, Mr. Nakata, nor any number of secondary characters would be able to fulfill their destinies.

So, are you following me? No? Good, then you have some idea, however penurious and nebulous, of what it is like to take a trip to the shore in the mind of Haruki Marakami. Hell, Kafka reads like Kant when placed beside this fantastic phantasmagoric writer the internal logic of whose book is unimpeachable. And this is perhaps the most stunning feat of all the various and sundry Enquirer like activiities that occur in the novel; this most impossible narrative turns out to have been obeying the laws of (dia)logical formations from the very beginning. Though it takes far longer to comprehend this than it does in your average everyday ontologically unstable narrative, the events of the story have unfolded according to a certain necessity, which was laid out from the very first pages: absolutely stunning!

In short, I recommend this intellectual adventure to everyone who thinks it exciting to think differently than one did the day before, and is willing to continue to have one's thinking evolve to the point of devolution. Fortunately, and perhaps this is the true gift that Murakami possesses, the author takes us time and time to the edge of reason and sense, only to pull us back just when we have been convinced that it may be best, if we were to go ahead and plunge body and mind into the abyss. Indeed, for those whose intellectual promiscuity is somewhat more reckless than the average homo sapien, it would be difficult not to feel let down at having been teased with the possibility of a beautifully transgressive literary experience, were it not for the fact that the next available opportunity for trying on a novel identity is found on the very next page or sooner. I do, however, have one rather serious warning; Kafka on the Shore is not for herd animals or for anyone who believes that syllogistic logic is the be all and end all of human intellectual achievemenet, which really amount to the same thing, when one thinks about it. Long live narrative and ontological uncertainty! Long live Haruki Murakami!
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EskimoJenn, January 19, 2012 (view all comments by EskimoJenn)
This was a lovely, dreamy book. I've occupied many pleasurable hours thinking about the story since I read it and I still keep finding new connections among the characters and plot points and cultural references.
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Product Details

Murakami, Haruki
Vintage Books USA
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage International
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.04x5.38x1.08 in. .78 lbs.

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Kafka on the Shore New Trade Paper
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Product details 480 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9781400079278 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Previous books such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood have established Murakami as a true original, a fearless writer possessed of a wildly uninhibited imagination and a legion of fiercely devoted fans. In this latest addition to the author's incomparable oeuvre, 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home, both to escape his father's oedipal prophecy and to find his long-lost mother and sister. As Kafka flees, so too does Nakata, an elderly simpleton whose quiet life has been upset by a gruesome murder. (A wonderfully endearing character, Nakata has never recovered from the effects of a mysterious World War II incident that left him unable to read or comprehend much, but did give him the power to speak with cats.) What follows is a kind of double odyssey, as Kafka and Nakata are drawn inexorably along their separate but somehow linked paths, groping to understand the roles fate has in store for them. Murakami likes to blur the boundary between the real and the surreal — we are treated to such oddities as fish raining from the sky; a forest-dwelling pair of Imperial Army soldiers who haven't aged since WWII; and a hilarious cameo by fried chicken king Colonel Sanders — but he also writes touchingly about love, loneliness and friendship. Occasionally, the writing drifts too far into metaphysical musings — mind-bending talk of parallel worlds, events occurring outside of time — and things swirl a bit at the end as the author tries, perhaps too hard, to make sense of things. But by this point, his readers, like his characters, will go just about anywhere Murakami wants them to, whether they 'get' it or not. Agent, Amanda Urban at ICM. 60,000 first printing. (Jan. 24)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Perhaps it needn't be said that this meta-fictional fun house isn't perfect, but underpinning it all is a surprisingly patient, deeply affecting meditation on perfection itself, specifically romantic perfection — the obsessive greed in pursuing it, the selfish isolation that comes from achieving it, the soul-killing (and also selfish) grief of outliving it, of being left, inevitably, with nothing but its fading memory." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review" by , "Murakami is of course himself an immensely reader-friendly novelist, and never has he offered more enticing fare than this enchantingly inventive tale. A masterpiece, entirely Nobel-worthy."
"Review" by , "Murakami's novel, though wearying at times and confusing at others, has the faintly absurd loft of some great festive balloon. He addresses the fantastic and the natural, each with the same mix of gravity and lightness."
"Review" by , "[W]hile anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it's the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves."
"Review" by , "However vague its allusions and overbearing its pretensions, however needlessly jive its English translation ('Jeez Louise'), this book makes for a beguiling and enveloping experience."
"Review" by , "[Kafka] may be the Japanese author's weirdest novel yet, but it's also one of his best....What ties all this together is Murakami's unflappable, enchanting prose: hip but companionable, it keeps you coming back for more."
"Review" by , "[A] real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender....[I]t seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be."
"Review" by , "Parts of Murakami's story are violently gruesome and sexually explicit, and the plot line following Nakata is rather eerie and disturbing. Yet the bulk of this narrative is erudite, lyrical, and compelling; followers of Murakami's work should approve. Recommended."
"Review" by , "The voluptuous pleasure of Haruki Murakami's enthralling fictions...reminds me of dreaming....And, like a dream, what this dazzling novel means — or whether it means anything at all — we may never know. (Grade: A-)"
"Review" by , "Kafka on the Shore is Murakami's biggest novel in a decade and one of the most fun to read....[I]t feels like a return to Murakami's most whimsical métier."
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