An Insistently Metaphysical Mind-Bender

 
 

海辺のカフカ (Kafka on the Shore) (海辺のカフカ) is a 2002 novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In “Subconscious Tunnels: Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike new novel” (The New Yorker, January 24, 2005) John Updike described it as a “real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender”. Since its 2005 English language release (translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel), the novel has received mostly positive reviews and critical acclaim, including a spot on The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2005 and the World Fantasy Award.

Comprising two distinct but interrelated plots, the narrative runs back and forth between both plots, taking up each plot line in alternating chapters.

The odd chapters tell the 15-year-old Kafka’s story as he runs away from his father’s house to escape an Oedipal curse and to embark upon a quest to find his mother and sister. After a series of adventures, he finds shelter in a quiet, private library in Takamatsu, run by the distant and aloof Miss Saeki and the intelligent and more welcoming Oshima. There he spends his days reading the unabridged Richard Francis Burton translation of One Thousand and One Nights and the collected works of Natsume Sōseki until the police begin inquiring after him in connection with a brutal murder.

The even chapters tell Nakata’s story. Due to his uncanny abilities, he has found part-time work in his old age as a finder of lost cats (notably, Murakami’s earlier work The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle also involves searching for a lost cat). The case of one particular lost cat puts him on a path that ultimately takes him far away from his home, ending up on the road for the first time in his life. He befriends a truck driver named Hoshino, who takes him on as a passenger in his truck and soon becomes very attached to the old man.

Kafka on the Shore demonstrates Murakami’s typical blend of popular culture, mundane detail, magical realism, suspense, humor, an involved plot, and potent sexuality. It also features an increased emphasis on Japanese religious traditions, particularly Shinto. The main characters are significant departures from the typical protagonist of a Murakami novel, such as Toru Watanabe of Norwegian Wood and Toru Okada of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, who are typically in their 20s or 30s and have rather humdrum personalities. However, many of the same themes re-occur in Kafka on the Shore as were first developed in these and other previous novels.

In an interview posted on his English language website, Murakami says that the secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it several times: “Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write”.

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Kafka for Kids

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Franz Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

 
 

 
 

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

 
 


 
 

Much likeJonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Charles Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem Excursion into the Mountains, the novella The Metamorphosis, which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and Josefine the Singer, his final story.

 
 

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? —
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

 
 

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

 
 

 
 

Though Kafka never wrote for children (in fact, one might argue, he never wrote for anyone but himself), My First Kafka transforms his surviving work into a fine addition to other notable children’s book by famous authors of “adult” literature, including Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

A Poem for June

 
 

The sun is rich
And gladly pays
In golden hours,
Silver days,

And long green weeks
That never end.
School’s out. The time
Is ours to spend.

There’s Little League,
Hopscotch, the creek,
And, after supper,
Hide-and-seek.

The live-long light
Is like a dream,
and freckles come
Like flies to cream.

John Updike

Poem from A Child’s Calendar

Tender or Mischievous

Albrecht Durer, Young Hare

 
 

Vincent Van Gogh, Field with Two Rabbits

 
 

Drawing from original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Lewis Carroll

 
 

John Tenniel, White Rabbit

 
 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 
 

Salvador Dalí, Down the Rabbit Hole

 
 

Norman Rockwell

 
 

According to Arthur Paul, the designer of the playboy logo, he chose the rabbit because of its “humorous sexual connotation” and also because the representation was “frisky and playful”. The playboy logo is undoubtedly mischievous in its nature.

 
 

Robert Crumb’s drawing

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

Boy-By-The-Sea1Terence Koh, Boy by the Sea (2008)

 
 

Jeff Koons

 
 

Illustration by Han Hoogerbrugge

 
 

Chuck Jones and Bugs Bunny

 
 

Rabbits (David Lynch,2002)

 
 

John Updike may have chosen the name Rabbit for his character for its echo of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922).  Previously to Rabbit, Run (1961),Updike had written a short story entitled Ace In The Hole, and to a lesser extent a poem, Ex-Basketball Player, with similar themes to this series.

 
 

“It had a bed, a table, and a chair. The table had a lamp on it, a lamp that had never stopped burning in anticipation of her return, and on the lamp perched a butterfly with two large eyes painted on its widespread wings. Tereza knew she was at her goal. She lay down on the bed and pressed the rabbit to her face.”

 
 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1989). The Wolf and other characters were based on Tex Avery’s Red Hot Ridding Hood.

 
 

The animation of Cool World (Ralph Bakshi, 1992) was strongly influenced by the house styles of Fleischer Studios and Terrytoons. Bakshi had originally intended to cast Drew Barrymore instead Kim Bassinger  in the film’s leading role.