Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami brings Chapter 25 to a close with a characteristic piece of disarming textual self-awareness: "There are just too many coincidences. Everything seems to be speeding up, rushing towards one destination". How can you take the piss out of a novel that seems to be so intent on doing it to itself? (This was essentially Ben Elton's complaint about the old Ferrero Rocher ambassador's party ads!)

Back in the spring when I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , I reflected that Murakami's version of the great cosmic conspiracy is really more of a great cosmic wind-up, something to be ruefully amused about, rather than anguished by. Murakami's philosophical puzzles are more reminiscent of Takeshi's Castle than the Times crossword. Failure can be fun.

He alludes in this story to that other great architect of literary labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, but whereas the wily Argentine conceived of mazes with few if any obvious exits, Murakami's have almost too many. Once again I was left with the impression that his long form fiction fails to follow all of its own lines of inquiry. (A spectral soldier tells Kafka that the word for labyrinth derives from the Babylonian word for gut, thus throwing some light on the recurring intestinal theme in the text, though elsewhere a character pipes up with "symbolism and meaning are two separate things". )

I'd liken the experience of reading a Murakami novel to immersion in a salty sea surrounded by the floating forms of red herrings, some dead, some just playing dead. You can sense the depth of the medium below, but can't directly perceive anything beneath the shimmering surface.

This strange universe of deep wells, missing cats and sundered siblings is literally multi-dimensional. It has secret agendas that transcend everyday reality and penetrate into both dreams and the spirit world. The advantage that Murakami has over David Lynch is the indiscriminately all-embracing Shinto concept of supernature. In constrast there's no handy reference system to straighten out the weirdness of Twin Peaks. What for instance was that log woman all about?

Plato is another everpresent shade - both as ancestral spokesperson for the view that reality isn't everything its cracked up to be, and as the author of the Symposium, that earlier meditation on Ancient Greek sexual hang-ups in which Aristophanes makes his famous speech about how each of us was involved in an ugly divorce before we were even born.

The novel features two apparently converging narrative lines, one in the first person, the other told in the third, the two plots move off again in different directions after a single point of contact - where it was intriguing to discover how the third person narrative voice offered a different perspective on the occupants of Kafka's personal account.

All the usual Murakami preoccupations are centre-stage. There's another character (like the retired lieutenant in TWUBC) that has got stuck at a fixed point on her life's trajectory and hasn't been able to move forward for years, whilst 15 year-old Kafka observes that his "identity is an orbit that I've strayed away from" and that "sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that changes direction. This storm is you. Something inside of you".

On more than one occasion I found myself bumping into one of the author's singular metaphors - "Her tone of voice is tough and unyielding like a loaf of bread someone forgot on the back of a shelf".

I also ended up downloading from iTunes the vintage Rubinstein, Feuermann and Heifetz recording of Beethoven's Archduke Trio as a direct result of the massive plug it gets in this novel.

What could so easily have ended up so "life is a metaphor dude" pretentious, is instead giddily intricate, serious but also significantly light. The actual content would be hard to describe in detail without inadvertently making it appeal to all those horrid Paolo Coelho readers, so instead I will simply recommend it to everyone else.

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