10 January 2015

Murakami 3

[Written in April 2014]

After a long gap, I'm trying again with Murakami. This time it's Kafka on the Shore. It looks like I'm going to like it more than Norwegian Wood but already I'm a bit frustrated by the clunky construction.

There are two main threads in the book so far: Kafka's own story of running away from home, and a sans-serif, quasi-documental account of a mysterious incident that took place during the Second World War.

Kafka is the name the central character, and first-person narrator, has adopted for himself. Just as with the Magic Mountain references in Norwegian Wood, I can't help feeling clobbered by the signposting. And while we don't yet know how the two threads will be linked, we can be sure they will be. It's not an unusual technique, of course, but just seems a bit mechanical here.

And then there's this, at the end of chapter 7:
But on the evening of the eighth day - as had to happen sooner or later - this simple, centripetal life is blown to bits.
With crushing inevitability, chapter 8 then picks up the story of the war incident. Again, not an unusual technique to create suspense, but it feels tired, and the manipulation is so obvious that my initial response is to resist it.

A bit further on, and I'm beginning to be quite annoyed by the philosophical discussions that keep popping up. To take a short example, here's one from page 261. Kafka is discussing a song with Oshima:
"The lyrics, though, are pretty symbolic" I venture.
"From time immemorial, symbolism and poetry have been inseperable. Like a pirate and his rum."
This really isn't the worst example, not by a long way, although the "pirate/rum" simile is a bit odd. It's a kind of exposition, I suppose. Like the Kafka name (and various other literary references that are strewn around) it's guiding us rather too obviously. If you want a full-length example of what I'm talking about, read page 262 in full.

I'll finish this book but I don't think I'll read another Murakami. At risk of being patronising and superior, they seem likely to appeal to readers with less experience of narrative construction, which, objectively, is most other people compared to me (ie - simply - I've read more novels than most people.)
Well, reader, I finished it, though it felt like a bit of a chore towards the end. It's obvious from early on that the book won't deliver the simple closure of a more conventional narrative, so there's no turn-the-page imperative. In the end one is left uncertain of how much of the story is to be taken at all literally, and maybe that's the point, at a metaphysical level: literature, and life, are constructions and "literally" is, as always, a slippery concept. At the simplest level, we can think of the book as depicting Kafka's mythical journey in forgiving his mother. Neither of these seem sufficient. The metaphysical meaning is hammered home, but still vague, while the personal story is too lightweight to fill 508 pages (656 in the hardback, apparently. 656!)

What is its appeal? From time to time I was reminded of John Fowles' The Magus, a book that similarly captivated an earlier generation of adolescents, including me. In terms of content there are similarities: ghosts of the second world war interacting with an over-sexed younger version of the author in woods. But maybe it's more to do with the mysteries or gaps in the book. Both leave enormous scope for speculation and discussion. I've read that Murakami's Japanese publishers invited questions to their website. Thousands were posed but Murakami's only (canny) answer was that the book is full of riddles and you have to read it a few times. But essentially, I suppose, the questions would largely be about "what really happened", and what was dream/fantasy/deception.

In the end, but it took a while, I grew angry at Fowles' manipulation. I think it's just taken me a lot less time for that to happen this time.