Searching for a way to describe a new style of painting in the 1920s, Franz Roh invented the term “magic realism.” However, like the fictions that would later bear this name, the designation showed little regard for neat distinctions between the various arts. With a wink, it quickly slipped away the frames of pictures and fled to the world of literature. Since then, magical realism has been pleasantly blurring the lines between the imaginary and the mundane for generations of readers. Like a tricky fox spirit, it stole unannounced into Japan in the 1970s. It now inhabits the pages of books by the internationally acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami. Perhaps the best of these is his 2003 work Kafka on the Shore.
When fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from his sociopathic father to the island of Shikoku, he sets a chain of cosmic events in motion. As he is planning his escape, Kafka speaks with an enigmatic character called The Boy Named Crow. At the outset, we find ourselves tempted to see Crow as a real person, perhaps the protagonist’s friend. But as we follow the narrator’s journey, we realize that Crow is either an interior voice or a kind of spiritual guide to his pilgrimage.
Knowing no one in the city, the young man finds himself drawn to the fictional Komura library run by the demurely formidable Miss Saeki. Her assistant, Oshima, befriends Kafka and gives him a job as caretaker, allowing him to sleep in the library. But soon, the spirit apparition of Miss Saeki begins to appear in the library at night, and Kafka, who suspects that she is his estranged mother, finds himself entangled in a romantic relationship with her.
Paralleling Kafka’s story is the strange odyssey of the simple-minded Nakata. Nakata emerged mentally disabled from an unexplained mass coma incident during World War II. Although he cannot read or write, he possesses the unique ability to understand the language of cats. He receives a government subsidy but earns a little additional money by tracking down stray animals in his neighborhood. He does this by interviewing the various feline inhabitants of his ward.
While investigating the disappearance of a particular stray, Nakata encounters Kafka Tamura’s father. The latter is inhabited by a spirit calling itself Johnny Walker and is dressed as the iconic character from the liquor label. Disturbing scenes of violence ensue, and Nakata, by instinct or spiritual knowledge, hitchhikes to Shikoku to set things right. As he does so, he exhibits remarkable new powers. At one point, as a windfall to his furry friends, he causes it to rain fish on the city.
Kafka on the Shore seamlessly blends elements from Japanese folklore with pop culture and Jungian psychology in a heady mix. And of course, over it all, hovers the spirit of Franz Kafka, the protagonist’s namesake, who wrote of men turning to insects and fantastical execution machines. Murakami eschews beautiful phrases and literary language, telling his tale in a simple direct fashion that translates well into English. For the novelist, what is essential is “the power of the story” itself, which hides and reveals its meaning by turns. 1
Wendy B. Faris writes that “magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that the magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed.” 2 But although they may seem natural in the context of the story, the fantastic images in these texts may often challenge our presumptions about the nature of the world as depicted in literature. Is the very old man with enormous wings truly an angel in Marquez’s story of that name? Does the narrator actually see all of space in a single point in Borges’ story, The Aleph? And, in the present case, we might ask, can Nakata literally speak with cats?
But if we are to ask these questions in a meaningful way, perhaps it’s best to widen the scope of our inquiry. Is the ghost in Hamlet real? Or journeying back further on the road of history, we might ask, is Achilles genuinely possessed by a god on the field of battle? Perhaps it is not these elements that are aberrant but the “realism” that we have imposed on literature for the last few hundred years.
The point that I am making is less that I believe in ghosts or the Greek Pantheon. Rather, I think the reemergence of elements of the marvelous in modern literature says something important about the nature of fiction and how it functions. Our picture of the world is very different than in Shakespeare’s time or Homer’s. But stories tell the truth of us. Human consciousness is mysterious, and the human person is much more than the sum of its parts. We write about ghosts, angels, and men who can converse with animals in order to express something within us that perhaps cannot be articulated in other ways. We may call them symbols or metaphors if we choose. But this will not rob them of their uncanny power to speak to us on some level that is beyond rational thought.
With this in mind, we may turn again to the tale of Kafka Tamura and ask ourselves what meaning we may draw out of its magical realities. Like a cat, the novel blinks at us and winds itself around our legs, but if we are to understand this lithe beast, we must learn to speak its language.
Perhaps the best place to start is the book’s themes. Despite its often whimsical approach, Kafka on the Shore deals with serious issues of love and loss. These are mediated through the filter of Japanese folklore and literature. In this tradition, character’s spirits often leave their bodies under emotional duress to inhabit others or accomplish some task. The eleventh-century Tale of Genji abounds in examples of ghosts and spirit possession. And in his eighteenth-century collection Tales of Moonlight and Rain, Ueda Akinari includes a particularly poignant example of this motif. A samurai warrior who cannot fulfill a promise he has made takes his own life so that his disembodied spirit can accomplish the task. Such events take concrete form in Murakami’s novel in a way that is common to other works of magical realism.
All of the characters in the novel experience profound tragedy in their lives. For example, set against the greater violence of the Second World War, the child Nakata is brutalized by a trusted teacher. He falls into a coma, and when he returns to consciousness, he is a shell of his former self. In the language of the novel, he has lost a portion of his shadow. Miss Saeki so grieves for her dead lover that she has made his former home into a shrine that her dream-self visits in the hours of her sleep. And Kafka himself has seen his father’s mental instability and brutality. As we explore the novel, we realize that he has escaped to prevent himself from doing violence to his own father.
The character of Oshima acts as a spectator who can comment objectively on the action of the story. Toward the end of the novel, he says, “There are a lot of things that aren’t your fault. Not the fault of prophecies or curses or DNA or absurdity. Not the fault of structuralism or the Third Industrial Revolution. We all die and disappear, but that’s because the mechanism of the world itself is built on destruction and loss.” 3
If this seems bleak, the novel provides something of an antidote. In addition to the motifs from Japanese folklore, Murakami mixes in an additional element seemingly derived from Jungian psychology. Critic Matthew Carl Strecher has pointed out that many of his books involve access to a timeless realm beyond our everyday experience of life. In the conventions of magic realism, the stories present this state of mind as a physical place. In this case, it is depicted as a strange forest which the protagonist enters and explores. And like many of the novelist’s other works, Kafka on the Shore deals with the need to balance the forces in our ordinary experience and that powerful, psychic other-world. 4
Like a cat, Kafka on the Shore displays many moods. At times it is playful, but then again, it may turn and bite us when we least expect it. However, if, like Nakata, we can learn to speak its language, it will hold us spellbound for many delightful hours.
- Strecher, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami, University of Minnesota Press, p.8
2. Faris, Scherezade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction, Zamora/Faris, Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Duke University Press, p.163
3. Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, Alfred A Knopf, Philip Gabriel tr. p. 310
4. Strecher p.125 ff.
How to Talk to Cats, copyright Jonathan Golding 2021, all rights reserved.
Art: Untitled original collage by Jonathan Golding. Public Domain.