Chasing Chapters is a series devoted to reviewing (and quoting excessively from) books I’ve enjoyed or been inspired by, to hopefully give you new recommendations for your reading list.
Call me an illiterate, uncultured swine, but just a month ago, if you had asked me who Murakami was, I would have instantly piped up and mentioned the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami
because rainbow flowers are prettier than books instead of the author Haruki Murakami.
Thanks to J’s book recommendation of Kafka On The Shore, I’m now marginally more well-read and cultured. I’ll admit that I contemplated abandoning the book out of sheer frustration at Page 62/420, because the plot felt like a meandering mess and I felt little-to-no emotional bond towards the characters. But I chose to persevere.
And you know what? I’m glad I did.
I devoured the book with a level of intensity while on my recent 5-day vacation in Vietnam, and felt a feverish compulsion to reach the end, just to figure out what the entire purpose of this story was. If you’re into a meandering, beautifully descriptive, John Green-esque storyline that toys with pseudo-spiritual concepts, leaves plot points deliberately unanswered, and occasionally frustrates, this book is for you.
a quick summary
Vaguely and poorly summarised (because I refuse to spoil the plot), Kafka On The Shore (KOTS) is a story about two parallel characters on their own journeys of self-discovery, who cross paths with side characters who help them reach certain epiphanies, with their paths eventually converging in a countryside library.
The two protagonists are:
- A runaway teenage boy-turned-library-employee with daddy issues and a runaway mother & sister, who feels inexplicably and sexually drawn to a middle-aged librarian (who may or may not be his mother), with a transgender colleague as his confidante.
- An elderly man who obtained special powers, such as talking to cats & making fish/leeches rain from the sky, after being knocked out by a psychic phenomenon as a child, who later adopts a truck driver disciple on a cross-Japan pilgrimage.
The story, heavy on metaphysical themes, also frequently alludes to a place somewhere between reality/life and death, which can be visited in one’s dreams or accessed through a mysterious forest clearing. It’s represented as a village suspended in limbo, and this concept of limbo being a physical place is brought up in other Murakami novels as well.
Themes include loss/death, dreams, sexuality, love & melancholy, and it’s a slow burn kind of book. If you’re sensitive towards certain topics, this website has usefully compiled some trigger warnings as well!
the headache of reading Murakami
Have you ever heard of the genre ‘magical realism’? Well, now you have. Murakami’s other books also heavily dabble in this genre, so you’ll either grow to love it, or abandon his works forever.
KOTS was my first foray into the genre of magical realism, described by Wikipedia as ‘magical or supernatural phenomena presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting’. Reading the first few chapters was confusing and slightly trippy; Murakami’s abstract writing style & chosen plot structure might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Personally, it took me a couple of chapters to get used to it, and it didn’t help that the chapters alternated between two protagonists’ contrasting storylines. I found this particularly disorienting at the start, since readers know nothing about either character, but it increasingly hit its stride as the story progressed and both characters’ storylines began to converge.
As I progressed through the book, I jumped aboard the Murakami hype train as the plot chugged towards its fantastical & semi-spiritual ending, which I will not spoil for obvious reasons.
My only gripe about KOTS would be how some key characters were written. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good manic pixie dream girl/MDPG trope a la Scott Pilgrim’s Ramona Flowers, but it loses its appeal when almost all of Murakami’s female characters are portrayed that way.
Funnily enough, I’ve noticed that Murakami tends to write his male characters (not just in this novel) as troubled, edgy, and horny; while his female characters are one-dimensional, borderline-depressed MPDGs, who serve as objects of desire for the said male protagonists.
I mean…this paragraph is just the epitome of the male gaze:
You might call it an outpouring of energy. Nothing showy, it’s colorless, transparent, like fresh water secretly seeping out between rocks-a kind of natural, unspoiled appeal that shoots straight to your heart. That brilliant energy seeps out of her entire being as she sits there at the piano. Just by looking at that happy smile, you can trace the beautiful path that a contented heart must follow. Like a firefly’s glow that persists long after it’s disappeared into the darkness.
But I suppose that’s a quirk of the author that readers will just have to live with and sardonically appreciate. Overall, his stories take you on a journey of fevered dreams and confusing acid trips, leaving you with a sense of wonder, and perhaps some inspiration to either become a MPDG or find an MPDG love interest…
my favourite Kafka on the Shore quotes
I personally enjoyed the vivid imagery, realistic dialogue, and occasional philosophical gems that were reminiscent of my favourite book, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Below are 10 of my favourite quotes (with absolutely no context), to give you a flavour of his writing style.
1. The rest of the book isn’t nearly as sentimental as this, unfortunately
We have an experience – like a chemical reaction – that transforms something inside us. When we examine ourselves later on, we discover that all the standards we’ve lived by have shot up another notch and the world’s opened up in unexpected ways. Yes, I’ve had that experience. Not often, but it has happened. It’s like falling in love.
2. This conversation was too relatable:
“You don’t know why you’re going, or even where you’re going. But
you’ve still got to go to Shikoku?”
“That’s right. Nakata’s going to cross a big bridge.”
“Things’ll be clearer once you’re on the other side?”
“I think so. I won’t know anything until I cross the bridge.”
“Hmm,” Hoshino said. “So crossing that bridge is very important.”
“Yes, that’s more important than anything.”
3. Guess you and I are living in a FedEx box
Listen, every object’s in flux. The Earth, time, concepts, love, life, faith, justice, evil – they’re all fluid and in transition. They don’t stay in one form or in one place forever. The whole universe is like some big FedEx box.
4. A pretty chill lifestyle eh?
Just like dogs and cats, he marked off his territory, a boundary line beyond which, except in unusual circumstances, he never ventured. As long as he stayed there he felt safe and content. No dissatisfaction, no anger at anything. No feelings of loneliness, anxieties about the future, or worries that his life was difficult or inconvenient. Day after day, for more than ten years, this was his life, leisurely enjoying whatever came along.
5. Quite possibly the most romantic quote in this book:
If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets.
6. This quote would have fit right in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist
And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.
“Perhaps,” Oshima says, as if fed up, “Perhaps most people in the world aren’t trying to be free, Kafka. They just think they are. It’s all an illusion. If they really were set free, most people would be in a real bind. You’d better remember that. People actually prefer not being free.“
8. The imagery really struck me
Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads -at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.
9. How I feel about narrow-minded people
Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive.
10. Let’s be typhoons while we’re still alive
We all die and disappear, but that’s because the mechanism of the world itself is built on destruction and loss. Our lives are just shadows of that guiding principle. Say the wind blows. It can be a strong, violent wind or a gentle breeze. But eventually every kind of wind dies out and disappears.
Overall, it does it take a certain level of patience
or masochism, tolerance of ambiguity, and love of abstract concepts to finish Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore, a feat which I am proud to say I have now accomplished.
On my own completely arbitrary scale, I’d rate it a solid 6.5/10. Please don’t send hate for the low rating, I loved another melancholic Murakami novel (Sputnik Sweetheart) way more than this, so stay tuned for its upcoming review!
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If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, musings, doctoring), or check out my most read series below:
- the Chasing Dreams series: a multi-part series chronicling my thoughts, dreams & changing ideals over the years (since 2018), including burnout, quitting the rat race, migration and trying to find my path in life
- the (not-so-definitive) guide to doctoring: Getting into Med School & FAQs | Surviving your Clinical Years | MBBS Tips | Life as a M1 // M2 // M3 // M4 // M5 during COVID // Life as a Doctor (monthly series) | Chasing Careers series