Kafka on The Shore: On Haruki Murakami & The Passive Hero
I have been a fan of Murakami since I was a teenager savoring my first twin-paperback of Norwegian Wood (now a film directed by Tran Anh Hung of The Scent of Green Papaya fame). Like the millions of Japanese youths before me, I found solace in the teenage protagonist and his encounter with loss and sexuality. In those early days, Murakami, was still an unknown name outside Asia and English translations of his works were rare, if at all available; consequently I read his early works in either the original Japanese paperbacks (which usually came in miniature twin volumes) or the translated Mandarin versions. When The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in an English translation in 1998, Murakami gained popularity in the West and his books quickly became available in English. I was thus able to lay my hands on the English translations of his past works such as Norwegian Wood—which I reread the third time—and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
In 2002, Murakami wrote Kafka on the Shore, his metaphysical tour de force (or as another reviewer says: a fusion of “Kafkaesque surrealism, dashes of sex, horror, and well, talking cats, and characters in the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders!”). Consisting of two distinct but interrelated plots, the narrative flips between each plotline in alternating chapters. In the odd chapters, a fifteen-year-old boy by the name of Kafka Tamura runs away from his father's house to embark on an Oedipal quest to find his mother and sister. In the even chapters, an elderly man, Nakata, who can talk to cats becomes embroiled in the occult. As the book progresses, the fate of Kafka and Nakata becomes intertwined until their paths collide on both a physical and metaphysical plane.
Much has been said about Murakami’s distinctive blend of pop culture and magical surrealism. Kafka, in more than one ways, is reminiscent of Hard-Boiled Wonderland in his parallel story structure and metaphysical elements. At the same time, it harks back to the days of Norwegian Wood with the teenage protagonist and his adolescent concerns and sexual anxieties.
As a writer, I find Kafka refreshing for a different reason. Murakami’s male protagonists have always been loners who are westernized, self-sufficient and overall passive. From the university student Watanabe in Norwegian Wood to the Tokyo yuppie in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, the protagonist is carried through the plot by greater events beyond his control; he does not protest or struggle against what the author may throw in his way, neither does he take action to change the events around him until perhaps the very end of the story. More often, his concerns are cooking a pot of perfect spaghetti and listening to a track by Miles Davis. He beds the random girls who throw themselves at him and faces adversity with the same coolness.
How does Murakami engage the reader with a passive hero? As writers, we all know the potential pitfalls of a passive protagonist. If the hero or heroine is seen to play a subversive role, or “go with the flow” personalities who get jolted along by the story, the reader quickly becomes bored and let down. Often, we are encouraged to let our protagonist play a more pro-active role in moving the plot along so that he or she may grow and be changed in the process. I relate this to my own novel in which the plot demands that the heroine’s growth from a passive, non-committal girl to a strong and self-assured woman. The danger of letting an unformed character inhabit the opening chapters of a novel is that she may be too weak, for too long, for a reader to be fully involved or sympathetic. So how does Murakami do it? The question I have been asking ever since I began writing.
In Kafka I found an atypical Murakami hero—Kafka Tamura steals his father’s money, runs away, and falls in love with the fifteen-year-old ghost of an older woman who could be his dead-beat mother. Kafka is not the most lovable of characters but he gave me a glimpse of how it could be done. Throughout the length of the book, Kafka maintains an enigmatic dialogue with “the boy named Crow”. We discover as the story progresses, that Crow is actually a figment of Kafka’s overactive imagination—a subconscious voice to whom he confides his fears and loathing. Through Crow (we are told that Kafka means “Crow” in Czech), the reader glimpses Kafka’s inner struggles and the thought-processes. Through Crow, we engage in Kafka’s raison d’être.
In Murakami’s earlier works, a character assuming the function of Crow is conspicuously missing—or so it seems. After all, Watanabe and the Tokyo yuppie are characters whose inner workings are sane, if slightly predictable. But no, we find them predictable and we know that they are sane because we, the readers, are Crow. Murakami’s protagonists talk to us as if we are their subconscious voice. They may seem like passive observers of events, but their thoughts—gravid with witty observations—are talking to us, pulling us into the unpredictable world which they drift about in seemingly blissful ignorance while we fret and clench our knuckles in knowing anticipation.
Murakami is a master of the first person narrative, but more than that, he has successfully deployed his lonely and outwardly reticent males as a smokescreen of his genius. I reread Norwegian Wood recently; this time I’m just happy to be Kafka.