The one benefit of having a very long commute to work each day is that it allows one to get through a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. Not that I actually listen to a lot of audiobooks, admittedly, mainly because I like to mark up my books and share interesting passages on twitter as I go. They do benefit from professional narration, though, like a radio play, and poetry especially benefits from being read out loud. Of course, audiobooks are also a distraction while driving, though if I do get into an auto accident at least I’ll go out listening to something good.
Anyway, Kafka on the Shore is the first book I’ve read (listened to? whatever) by Murakami Haruki. The book starts with a fifteen-year-old boy running away from home, and at first one thinks this will be a realistic story about a runaway. By the time one gets to the old man who talks with cats and fish raining from the sky it’s pretty clear that this isn’t that sort of novel, though perhaps it does qualify as magical realism, since these things are dealt with straightforwardly and relatively realistically. The boy, who takes the name “Kafka,” takes up about half the novel in first-person narration, while the intertwined other half has a third-persona narrator, focusing on the old man, Nakata, and his backstory.
Nakata’s story is the more interesting part. It’s hard not to like the mentally disabled old man, since he’s so simple but good-natured, or Hoshino, the truck driver who picks him up as a hitchhiker and then tags along with him. Kafka, on the other hand, seems less sympathetic. Much of his story centres on a curse or prophecy from his father that mirrors that of Oedipus. However, Oedipus’s story is interesting because he is apparently unable to avoid his destiny, and falls into in unknowingly, but Kafka goes out of his way twice to bring it about, but acts as though he doesn’t have a choice in the matter.
Parts of the story were difficult to listen to, one scene because it was cruelly and graphically violent, and a few others that, had a passerby overheard them, they would’ve thought I was listening to erotica. I was also frustrated that Murakami left a few mysteries unresolved, though that’s not a major problem. Murakami also likes to show off a wide range of reference, and I suspect he made one character a librarian and Kafka an avid reader just so he could plausibly refer frequently to literature, philosophy, and history, as well as some jazz, classic rock, and classical music. Actually, some of Kafka and Oshima’s conversations reminded me of Kyon and Koizumi from Tanigawa Nagaru’s Haruhi series; both Haruhi boys seem almost implausibly well-read for high schoolers, and Koizumi exists in large part to explain the plot and theme of the novels. Murakami is better than that (though to be fair, Haruhi is also intentionally more comedic overall), but Oshima does like to explain Kafka’s life in terms of literary themes and terminology.
The narration, primarily by Sean Barrett and Oliver le Sueur with a few other actors taking minor parts, was well-done. It was published by Naxos and was obviously a British production, which is fine aside from occasionally having to remind myself that a “torch” is a flashlight or that the “first” floor is actually the second. The different parts of the narration are split between the different actors, which was a good choice since it helped keep them separate and gave each a unique feel. This only becomes a problem twice, and both were very much minor distractions: when the same two characters appeared in both narrative threads and thus were obviously voiced by two different people, and when an American character appears and it’s obviously a British man attempting a New York accent with only moderate success.
Overall, the novel is okay; this seems to be one of Murakami’s most popular novels, and though it wasn’t bad I wasn’t that impressed. Perhaps a Murakami fan can recommend something else, but I wouldn’t recommend Kafka on the Shore unless you’re especially curious to read something by Murakami, and at this point I don’t intend to seek out anything else of his.