Kafka on the Shore

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Title: Kafka on the Shore
Japanese Title: 海辺のカフカ
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 467

Kafka on the Shore is another Murakami novel about disappearing women. That, and penises – or, to be faithful to Gabriel’s translation, cocks. The “Kafka” of the title, “the world’s toughest fifteen year old,” gets a handjob from his (maybe) sister, has sex with his (maybe) mother, and fondles himself (maybe) half a dozen times in between. There are a lot of pages in this book, but there are a lot of cocks, too. Be forewarned.

If you can get past all that, Kafka on the Shore is an utterly charming book. In 2005, when Gabriel’s bestselling translation of the book was released in America, Kafka on the Shore was given a place on the New York Times’s “Ten Best Books of the Year” list and received the World Fantasy Award. I can’t help but wonder how much of this attention was simply a manifestation of the guilt and embarrassment of the American publishing industry, which failed to recognize Murakami’s genius as displayed in such monumental novels as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル, 1995); but, in any case, a lot of people found this book to be utterly charming.

The plot of the novel is long and convoluted, and I see no need to go into it. I would much rather talk about what exactly I found charming about the novel. What I enjoyed the most were the parallel plot lines. Every odd-numbered chapter focuses on the fifteen-year-old runaway Kafka, and every even-number chapter focuses on the sexagenarian Nakata, a likable man who has been rendered mentally deficient by a strange incident in his childhood. Although the two plot lines never meet in anything but the most indirect and metaphysical way, Murakami handles the structure just as skillfully as he did in his earlier novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド, 1985), and I found the experience of following the two stories to be very enjoyable.

The overall atmosphere of the novel was also quite enjoyable. Over the course of his career, Murakami has become more skillful at depicting the small details of everyday life in contemporary Japan, and the attention to setting in Kafka on the Shore should dispel any lingering doubts as to Murakami’s status as a “literary” writer. Particularly enjoyable were the early Nakata chapters, in which the fuzzy-headed old man wanders around Tokyo’s Nakano Ward looking for a lost cat. Nakata apparently has the ability to talk to cats, so he is employed in his neighborhood as a finder of missing pets. Following the details of his life through his muddled but quaint way of looking at the world is, as I have said before, utterly charming. Kafka’s experiences at a small, private library in Takamatsu are rendered in loving detail and will probably send bibliophiles directly to the internet, where they will compare prices on plane tickets to Shikoku. As a side note, the Komura Library described in the novel actually exists and is apparently every bit as pleasant and charming as Murakami makes it out to be.

I hope that I have been able to convince you that this novel is “utterly charming.” Indeed, despite some bizarre cameo appearances by Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker, Kafka on the Shore is not as dark as many of Murakami’s other novels and actually manages to break out of the Murakami cycle of privileging the world inside one’s own head above living in the real world. Miss Saeki, the disappearing woman of Kafka on the Shore, is elegantly mysterious and achingly eloquent concerning love, life, childhood, and memory. Her final fate is one of the many mysteries the reader must solve on his or her own, as, like the other supernatural elements in the novel, Murakami never quite satisfactorily explains it. Thankfully, this is another one of the charming points of Kafka on the Shore.

Real World

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Tile: Real World
Japanese Title: リアル ワールド (Riaru wārudo
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 208

Having already reviewed Rebecca Copeland’s translation of Grotesque, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and write an entry for Philip Gabriel’s new translation of Kirino Natsuo’s novel Real World. Real World is not as long or as grand of a story as Grotesque; and, as a result, it is much less intense. I would argue, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Grotesque is extremely graphic and upsetting for hundreds of pages. Real World is about 250 pages shorter, less graphic, and less upsetting. That being said, it is an extraordinarily dark novel, and just as heartbreaking as Out and Grotesque.

Fans of fragmented narratives will appreciate the structure of Real World, which is divided into eight different chapters, each narrated by a different character. The characters in question are Worm, an underachieving student at an elite high school who “snaps” and murders his mother, and a group of four high school girls who help him run from the law. Of these five characters, Worm is the least interesting. Yuzan is a lesbian from the wrong side of the tracks who has tried to find love in Tokyo but failed, leaving her disillusioned with life. Kirarin is a perfect princess in school but leads a shady side life of compensated dating in Tokyo. Terauchi is smart kid with a bright future, but she has been deeply scarred by her mother’s extramarital affair. The “main” narrator, who narrates the first and last of the eight chapters, is Ninna Hori. Ninna is perhaps the most normal of the five, but she too is more than a little jaded with the social roles she is expected to fill, and her comments about herself and her friends are full of insight. She is also the only character left to pick up the pieces at the end of the novel.

I found Real World to be not only an engrossing read but also a refreshing look into Japanese youth culture, which is so often glimpsed through rose-tinted anime sunglasses in America. Being a high school student is no more glamorous in Japan than it is in America, and Japanese students have just as many problems as America students (and perhaps more). Moreover, Japan is not just a country of cherry blossoms and vermillion torii gates but also of ugly convenience stores and crappy train station cram schools. Kirino’s novel is superlatively anti-romantic. Please don’t let the topic of high school students allow you to think for a moment that Real World is a novel for kids; it doesn’t get much more “adult” than this. Each narrative voice is realistic, mature, and fully-realized, and, even though the subject matter is undeniably gloomy, the quality of Kirino’s writing (and Gabriel’s translation) makes this book and extremely interesting and enjoyable read.