About half way through Haruki Murakami's new novel, Kafka on the Shore, Colonel Sanders says, "Anton Chekhov put it best when he said, 'If a pistol appears in a story, eventually it's got to be fired.'"
Shortly after, the novel stopped being enjoyable for me as a piece of fiction, but continued to hold interest as a discourse about the function of metaphors and character within a novel, primarily this one. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure if I'd write about the novel once I had finished, as I think there are some quite large problems with it, but to counteract that, there are some really fine things in it. What would I say? Could I say anything? So I waited, and my feeling, a day after having finished the book, is that this is Murakami in a transition. We're watching him stretch, look round, and take his considerable ability in different areas--but, at the same time, I don't think you will see a novel to match The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World, or the collection After the Quake, for a while yet. Naturally, you can disagree about those three (they are what I consider Murakami's finest work) and Kafka on the Shore, but it's what I'm going with.
Kafka on the Shore opens with the boy named Crow telling Kafka Tamura that he has to be the toughest fifteen year old in the world when he runs away, which he does. He is fleeing so that he does not fulfill his father's Oedipal curse of murdering his father, and sleeping with his mother and sister. His father has been driven the curse into him since Kafka's mother left, when he was four, and took his adopted sister with him. It is, of course, a large narrative weight, one that must be fulfilled like Chekhov's gun, and against it, Murakami places the story of the Nakata, and elderly man who, when he was little, collapsed (as did the rest of his classmates) for unexplainable reasons, but which are most likely linked to a UFO. When he woke up three weeks later, he couldn't read or write, but could speak to cats.
For the first two hundred pages, the two narratives wrap you up completely. You ignore the fact that Kafka doesn't sound like a fifteen year old, but rather sounds like any one of Murakami's previous middle aged narrators who like Western pop music from the 80s and instrumental pieces, and who also like women and who are, in many ways, quite ordinary in a world weary way. In truth, I did have a problem with the fact that Kafka was so obviously not a fifteen year old--all it would have taken was to take away the stock Murakami traits for a narrator, and replaced them with a bit of youth culture, and it would have been fine. Still, I could overlook it, as surrounding Kafka is more than enough interesting characters, beginning with the girl Sakura, who he thinks of as a sister, and Oshima, who works at the library, and Miss Saeki, the head of the library, and who he begins to think of as his mother.
Truth--narrative truth, if a character is or isn't what he or she says--is not important in Kafka on the Shore, for the prophecy that Kafka's father has laid out must happen, and each character in the book will fill the metaphorical position required for it to do so.
That's where Nakata enters. Between reports about the incident from his childhood, we learn that Nakata has been hired to find a lost kitten, and that the job of finding this lost creature is taking the old man into strange and different locations, which will include a man called Johnnie Walker, raining leeches, and a quest to set everything right. But first, Nakata must assume Kafka's position in the narrative that his father has created.
As I said, for the first half of the book, I was fascinated and caught up in it. I didn't know which chapter I was enjoying more, but then, slowly, the characterisation began to drain out (perhaps purposefully) and characters who do not have a metaphorical position in the narrative slip into the background. Oshima is replaced with Hoshino, the truck driver who gives Nakata a ride, but who ultimately signals the failure of the book as a piece of fiction.
Hoshino as a character never works. He's unconvincing as a tough, been round the block, in a bit of trouble kind of guy. He's unconvincing mainly because Murakami (or Gabriel translating Murakami) won't allow for Hoshino to be the foul mouthed, unpleasant man that he is required to be. As an example of this, he doesn't swear once. Not once. Instead, he says things like, 'whew.' However, what Hoshino's presence does, is that it allows you, the reader (in this case me) to begin noticing small issues with the translation: the currency is always dollars, and the number to call the Police is 911. The fault for this, of course, lies with Gabriel and the publisher who want an Americanised Japan, but once you start noticing this, Kafka's non-fifteen year old like characterisation begins to become slightly more jarring, though it is counteracted, slightly, by the fact that he soon assumes new metaphorical positions for Miss Saeki's narrative to unfold.
I do not like Philip Gabriel as a translator of Murakami's work. To my mind, he has produced the worse translation I've ever seen in South of the Border, West of the Sun, and while he redeemed himself with Sputnik Sweetheart, it wasn't as pleasurable as the translations of Jay Rubin or Alfred Birnbaum. However, I don't think the problems of Kafka on the Shore are found with him. It's with Murakami that the faults of the novel lie, because quite often, they are tied into the exploration of characters taking a metaphorical position in the narrative, and that's what ultimately the book is about. These positions the characters take are interchangeable, and often, the main characters take more than one--Kafka, for example, is the runaway, the son, the lover, and the employee, and he is all these things at once, which often sees his original characteristics fall away so that he can be all these things.
In the end, Kafka on the Shore is an interesting failure, but I don't mind that. It's a book to talk about, to debate, to share round, and I wouldn't swap the time I spent reading it. After all, I'd rather read something that aspires towards an ambitious end and fails, rather than something that aspires to nothing but an alphabet retelling of a narrative done before, and does that.