Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

First edition provenance: Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Kafka on the Shore (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami
By Saanya Papar
Author Biography and Literary Context:

Haruki Murakami was born in 1949 in Kyoto. Kafka on the shore was first published in 2002, and translated into English in 2005. The book was an international success and received critical acclaim, and was eventually translated into 38 languages. Murakami owned a jazz bar named “Peter Cat” in Tokyo, and did not begin writing until he was 29. Franz Kafka was one of his favorite writers, and he makes allusions to Franz Kafka’s fictional world and the post-modern and countercultural movement in Japan in his works. Kafka and the Shore is categorized under the genre of “magical realism”, a blend of fantasy elements and a natural, otherwise mundane environment. The novel has a dream-like quality, and reflects sensations of memory, isolation and melancholy which is consistent with several “Kafkaesque” themes of displacement, surreality and a blurred existentiality.

The novel tells of a 15-year-old runaway named Kafka Tamura who finds refuge in a small, quiet library in Takamatsu. The private and ornate library is isolated from the urban context of Takamatsu, and full of memories of the past. Kafka builds relationships with the library staff, notably Oshima, a 21-year old librarian who hides Kafka in the library and the in his cabin in the mountains, and the graceful Miss Saeki, the middle aged library manager with a troubled past. A parallel storyline describes Nakata, a mentally impaired man in his 60s and his bizarre travels, as he is inexplicably drawn to Kafka as the two storylines merge. As the plot develops, the level of fantasy, and the dream-like quality of the novel also intensifies as the protaganists begin to leave their bodies in their dreams, encounter talking cats, raining fish and immortal soldiers. These all seem to have thematic significance and the novel almost reads as a riddle, with no offered solution, but is left open  to the reader’s interpretation. The book’s riddles generated so many questions from readers that the publisher created an online platform for Japanese readers to post their questions for the author. Murakami responded personally to over 1200 questions from readers helping to piece together the puzzle and  opening up a dialogue with the readers.

Kafka hazards an explanation: “Maybe it’s a metaphor?” Oshima is skeptical, “Maybe… But sardines and mackerel and leeches raining down from the sky? What kind of metaphor is that?”


The Komura Memorial Library:

Perhaps the most important space in the novel is the Komura Memorial Library itself. This becomes Kafka’s refuge, home, portal to every imaginable place and a time period through the volumes of books it contains. The library is exclusive, as Kafka is told by the librarian that “no-one comes here to read the latest Stephen King novel”. It contains many rare books, paintings and specialises in works by Tanka and Haiku poets. The library is painstakingly put together by a rich literary family, and its every detail designed by the staff. It is rife with symbolism and full of memories from its inhabitants. The library evolves as the plot thickens, as nooks, tiny rooms, and found objects begin to emerge with great significance. This building becomes an archive to the character’s memories and becomes the centerpiece of a series of events that tie the characters together, connecting them though time and dreams. The first excerpt describes Kafka’s first visit and impression of the library, its characters and sets the scene for the entire novel.

“The world is a metaphor, Kafka Tamura,” he says into my ear. 
“But for you and me this library alone is no metaphor. It’s always just this library. I want to make sure we understand that.”
“Of course,” I say.
“It’s a unique, special library. And nothing else can ever take its place.”


Excerpt I: The Library

Right in front of the Komura Memorial Library’s imposing front gate stand two neatly trimmed plum trees. Inside the gate a gravel path winds past other beautifully manicured bushes and trees–pines and magnolias, kerria and azaleas—with not a fallen leaf in sight. A couple of stone lanterns peek out between the trees, as does a small pond. Finally I get to the intricately designed entrance. I come to a halt in front of the open front door, hesitating for a moment about going inside. This place doesn’t look like any library I’ve ever seen. But having come all this way I might as well take the plunge. Just inside the entrance a young man is sitting behind a counter where you check your bags. I slough off my backpack, then take off my sunglasses and cap.

“Is this your first visit?” he asks me in a relaxed, quiet voice. It’s slightly high-pitched, but smooth and soothing.

I nod, but the words don’t come. The question takes me by surprise and makes me kind of tense.

A long, freshly sharpened pencil between his fingers, the young man gazes intently at my face for a while. The pencil is yellow, with an eraser at the end.

The man’s face is on the small side, his features regular. Pretty, rather than handsome, might describe him best. He’s wearing a button-down white cotton shirt and olive green chinos, with not a single wrinkle on either. When he looks down his longish hair falls over his brow, and occasionally he notices this and fingers it back. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, revealing slender white wrists.

Delicately framed glasses nicely complement his features. The small plastic name tag pinned to his chest says Oshima. Not exactly the type of librarian I’m used to.

“Feel free to use the stacks,” he tells me, “and if you find a book you’d like to read, just bring it to the reading room. Rare books have a red seal on them, and for those you’ll need to fill out a request card. Over there to the right is the reference room. There’s a card index and a computer you can use to search for material. We don’t allow any books to be checked out. We don’t carry any magazines or newspapers. No cameras are allowed. And neither is making copies of anything. All food and beverages should be consumed outside on the benches. And we close at five.” He lays his pencil on the desk and adds, “Are you in high school?”

“Yes, I am,” I say after taking a deep breath.

“This library is a little different from the ones you’re probably used to,” he says. “We specialize in certain genres of books, mainly old books by tanka and haiku poets. Naturally, we have a selection of general books as well. Most of the people who ride the train all the way out here are doing research in those fields.

No one comes here to read the latest Stephen King novel. We might get the occasional graduate student, but very seldom someone your age. So–are you researching tanka or haiku, then?”

“No,” I answer.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Is it still okay for me to use the library?” I ask timidly, trying to keep my voice from cracking.

“Of course.” He smiles and places both hands on the desk. “This is a library, and anybody who wants to read is welcome. This can be our little secret, but I’m not particularly fond of tanka or haiku myself.”

“It’s a really beautiful building,” I say.

He nods. “The Komura family’s been a major sake producer since the Edo period,” he explains, “and the previous head of the family was quite a bibliophile, nationally famous for scouring the country in search of books. His father was himself a tanka poet, and many writers used to stop by here when they came to Shikoku. Wakayama Bokusui, for instance, or Ishikawa Takuboku, and Shiga Naoya. Some of them must have found it quite comfortable here, because they stayed a long time. All in all, the family spared no expense when it came to the literary arts. What usually happens with a family like that is eventually a descendant squanders the inheritance, but fortunately the Komuras avoided that fate. They enjoyed their hobby, in its place, but made sure the family business did well.”

“So they were rich,” I say, stating the obvious.

“Very much so.” His lips curve ever so slightly. “They aren’t as rich now as they were before the war, but they’re still pretty wealthy. Which is why they can maintain such a wonderful library. Of course making it a foundation helps lower their inheritance tax, but that’s another story. If you’re really interested in this building I suggest you take the little tour at two. It’s only once a week, on Tuesdays, which happens to be today. There’s a rather unique collection of paintings and drawings on the second floor, and the building itself is, architecturally, quite fascinating. I know you’ll enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” I say.

You’re quite welcome, his smile suggests. He picks his pencil up again and starts tapping the eraser end on the desk like he’s gently encouraging me.

“Are you the one who does the tour?”

Oshima smiles. “No, I’m just a lowly assistant, I’m afraid. A lady named Miss Saeki is in charge here–my boss. She’s related to the Komuras and does the tour herself. I know you’ll like her. She’s a wonderful person.”

I go into the high-ceilinged stacks and wander among the shelves, searching for a book that looks interesting. Magnificent thick beams run across the ceiling of the room, and gentle early-summer sunlight is shining through the open window, the chatter of birds in the garden filtering in. The books in the shelves in front of me, sure enough, are just like Oshima said, mainly books of Japanese poetry.

Tanka and haiku, essays on poetry, biographies of various poets. There are also a lot of books on local history. A shelf farther back contains general humanities– collections of Japanese literature, world literature, and individual writers, classics, philosophy, drama, art history, sociology, history, biography, geography…. When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages–a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers. Breathing it in, I glance through a few pages before returning each book to its shelf.

Finally I decide on a multivolume set, with beautiful covers, of the Burton translation of The Arabian Nights, pick out one volume, and take it back to the reading room. I’ve been meaning to read this book. Since the library has just opened for the day, there’s no one else there and I have the elegant reading room all to myself. It’s exactly like in the photo in the magazine–roomy and comfortable, with a high ceiling. Every once in a while a gentle breeze blows in through the open window, the white curtain rustling softly in air that has a hint of the sea. And I love the comfortable sofa. An old upright piano stands in a corner, and the whole place makes me feel like I’m in some friend’s home.

As I relax on the sofa and gaze around the room a thought hits me: This is exactly the place I’ve been looking for forever. A little hideaway in some sinkhole somewhere. I’d always thought of it as a secret, imaginary place, and can barely believe that it actually exists. I close my eyes and take a breath, and like a gentle cloud the wonder of it all settles over me. I slowly stroke the creamish cover of the sofa, then stand up and walk over to the piano and lift the cover, laying all ten fingers down on the slightly yellowed keys. I shut the cover and walk across the faded grape-patterned carpet to the window and test the antique handle that opens and closes it. I switch the floor lamp on and off, then check out all the paintings hanging on the walls. Finally I plop back down on the sofa and pick up reading where I left off, focusing on The Arabian Nights for a while


Architecture and Memory: Kafka’s Quarters / The Cabin

Memory is a recurrent theme in the novel, and Murakami uses a few major architectural settings to blur the passing of time and make allusions to the past. The best example of this is Kafka’s room or quarters within in the library. The room he is given used to belong to Miss Saeki’s dead lover and is full of memory. Upon his first visit to the room, the room is described an amalgamation of personal possessions, complete with the a portrait of the previous owner, as well as a record titled “Kafka on the shore”, written and sung by Miss Saeki herself, still in the stereo. In this space, Kafka begins to be transported back in time at night, having visions and interacting with the 15-year-old Miss Saeki. He begins to lay awake at night, waiting for her, and realises that the room becomes a literal portal into the past for many of the characters in the novel.

The architectural spaces Murakami develops in the novel are all rather idyllic, old and isolated. Themes of memory are again reiterated in the mystical cabin in the woods that Kafka flees to when on the run from the police. The cabin is described as old and weathered, with very basic amenities and surrounded by the dark and ancient forest. Throughout his time spent in isolation, reading the Trial of Adolf Eichmann , there is a notion of memory and time replaying itself, as Oshima did the very same when he was a boy, preceded by his brother and so on. Kafka Tamura, like Oshima’s brother in the past, heeds no warnings and ventures deep into the dark forest, where he encounters a two immortal soldiers, that take him to a camp where time stands still. Full of figures from the past and his memories, this fantastical experience is perhaps the most literal manifestation of themes of memory in the book.


Excerpt II: Kafka’s quarters

We go into a small room facing the parking lot. There are no windows, only a skylight high up. A mess of objects from various periods are strewn around—furniture, dishes, magazines, clothes, and paintings. Some of them are obviously valuable, but some, most, in fact, don’t look like they’re worth much.

“Someday we’ve got to get rid of all this junk,” Oshima remarks, “but nobody’s been brave enough to take the plunge.”

In the middle of the room, where time seems to have drifted to a halt, we find an old Sansui stereo. Covered in a thin layer of white dust, the stereo itself looks in good shape, though it must be over twenty-five years since this was up-to-date audio equipment. The whole set consists of a receiver, amp, turntable, and bookshelf speakers. We also find a collection of old LPs, mostly sixties pop music–Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder. About thirty albums, all told. I take some out of their jackets. Whoever listened to these took good care of them, because there’s no trace of mold and not a scratch anywhere.

There’s a guitar in the storeroom as well, still with strings. Plus a pile of old magazines I’ve never heard of, and an old-fashioned tennis racket. All like the ruins of some not-so-distant past.

“I imagine all this stuff belonged to Miss Saeki’s boyfriend,” Oshima says. “Like I mentioned, he used to live in this building, and they must’ve thrown his things down here. The stereo, though, looks more recent than that.”

Excerpt III: Kafka’s quarters 

Miss Saeki may have written the lyrics to “Kafka on the Shore” in this very room. The more I listen to the record, the more I’m sure that this Kafka on the shore is the young boy in the painting on the wall. I sit at the desk and, like she did last night, hold my chin in my hands and gaze at the same angle at the painting right in front of me. I’m positive now, this had to be where she wrote it. I see her gazing at the painting, remembering the young boy, writing the poem she then set to music. It had to have been at night, when it was pitch-dark outside. I stand up, go over to the wall, and examine the painting up close. The young man is looking off in the distance, his eyes full of a mysterious depth. In one corner of the sky there are some sharply outlined clouds, and the largest sort of looks like a crouching Sphinx.

I search my memory. The Sphinx was the enemy Oedipus defeated by solving the riddle, and once the monster knew it had lost, it leaped off a cliff and killed itself. Thanks to this exploit, Oedipus got to be king of Thebes and ended up marrying his own mother. And the name Kafka. I suspect Miss Saeki used it since in her mind the mysterious solitude of the boy in the picture overlapped with Kafka’s fictional world. That would explain the title: a solitary soul straying by an absurd shore.

Other lines overlap with things that happened to me. The part about “little fish rain from the sky”–isn’t that exactly what happened in that shopping area back home, when hundreds of sardines and mackerel rained down? The part about how the shadow “becomes a knife that pierces your dreams”–that could be my father’s stabbing. I copy down all the lines of the song in my notebook and study them, underlining parts that particularly interest me. But in the end it’s all too suggestive, and I don’t know what to make of it.

Words without letters

Standing in the shadow of the door…

The drowning girl’s fingers

Search for the entrance stone…

Outside the window there are soldiers,

steeling themselves to die….


What could it mean? Were all these just coincidences? I walk to the window and look out at the garden. Darkness is just settling in on the world. I go over to the reading room, sit on the sofa, and open up Tanizaki’s translation of The Tale of Genji. At ten I go to bed, turn off the bedside light, and close my eyes, waiting for the fifteen-year-old Miss Saeki to return to this room.


Excerpt IV: The Cabin

There’s a small building in front of us, a log cabin by the look of it, though it’s too dark to see much. Just a dark outline floating against the background of the forest. The headlights still on, Oshima slowly approaches the cabin, flashlight in hand, walks up the porch steps, takes out a key, and unlocks the door. He goes inside, strikes a match, and lights a lamp. He then steps out onto the porch, holding the lamp, and announces, “Welcome to my house.” It all looks like a drawing in an old storybook.

I walk up the steps and go inside. Oshima lights a larger lamp suspended from the ceiling. The cabin consists of a single big, boxy room. There’s a small bed in the corner, a dining table and two wooden chairs, an old sofa, a hopelessly faded rug–a bunch of old furniture nobody wanted, it looks like, just thrown together. There’s a cinder block and board shelf crammed full of books, their covers worn like they’ve been read a lot. There’s also an old chest for storing clothes. And a simple kitchen with a counter, a small gas stove, and a sink but no running water. Instead, an aluminum pail I guess is for water. A pan and kettle on a shelf, plus a frying pan hanging from the wall. And in the middle of the room there’s a black wood-burning stove.

References to Franz Kafka and popular culture:

Murakami makes numerous literary, musical and film references throughout the novel, particularly to Franz Kafka. Several of the characters in the book have a relationship with Kafka or “Kafkaesque” themes, the most obvious being the name the protagonist gives to himself, Kafka Tamura. While the reader never finds out his real name, he explains why he chooses the name Kafka to represent his identity. Kafka Tamura often converses with his alter-ego, a tough droopy-eyed 15-year old named Crow, and about two-thirds into the book the reader finds out that “Kafka” literally means crow in Czech, fusing the identity of the protagonist with that of Kafka. But why Kafka? It is possible that Murakami used Franz Kafka to emphasize themes of isolation and alienation, as well as to critique forms of Japanese bureaucracy and the police force investigating his father’s murder in particular.

“Nobody’s going to help me. At least no one has up till now. So I have to make it on my own. I have to get stronger–like a stray crow. That’s why I gave myself the name Kafka. That’s what Kafka means in Czech, you know–crow.”

“Hmm,” she says, mildly impressed. “So you’re Crow.”

Franz Kafka is also a figure that draws many of the characters together. Kafka Tamura is only allowed to stay in the library after revealing his name, which has an profound effect on the library staff. The tragedy of the death of Miss Saeki’s lover is shown in a song she writes for him, named “Kafka on the Shore”, which also becomes the title of the book. There is a consistently a switching of identities concerning the protagonist which all seem linked in some way or another to Franz Kafka. He switches from 15 year-old runaway, to “Crow”, his alter-ego, to Miss Saeki’s 15-year old boyfriend (who is also named Kafka by Miss Saeki)  when he enters his old quarters. In this way, Murakami ties together some of the surreal events in the book by using Franz Kafka as a continuous reference.

With the majority of the novel being set in a library, it is abundant with literary and musical references.  Much like the Franz Kafka reference, Murakami uses these references a moments in the plot that draw characters together. In their isolation, the main characters are absorbed in literature, music, and art, providing a starting point for much of their conversations and relationships. In addition to the obvious Oedipial reference throughout the novel, as Kafka searches desperately for his mother and sister, however at the same time, Murakami brings references from popular culture to life, adding a surreal and oddly comical overlay to the events in the novel. In a parallel storyline, Kafka Tamura’s father, brilliant sculptor and crazed cat murderer, takes on the pseudonym of Johnnie Walker. Colonel Sanders, the KFC icon, becomes a character in the novel, a pimp that guides Nakata and Hoshino to Takamatsu and the library, merging both storylines. Truck driver Hoshino, throws away his job and uproots himself after listening to Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, while Kafka Tamura calms himself in an isolated cabin, listening to Prince on his walkman. Murakami cultivates these references similarly to the way he develops architecture in the novel; both historical and contemporary, they blur the passing of time and are devices for the character’s self exploration and identity.




Excerpt V: Kafka

“Kafka Tamura?”

“That’s my name.”

“Kind of strange.”

“Well, that’s my name,” I insist.

“I assume you’ve read some of Kafka’s stories?”

I nod. “The Castle, and The Trial, ‘The Metamorphosis,” plus that weird story about an execution device.”

“’In the Penal Colony,’” Oshima says. “I love that story. Only Kafka could have written that.”

“That’s my favorite of his short stories.”

“No kidding?”

I nod.

“Why’s that?”

It takes me a while to gather my thoughts. “I think what Kafka does is give a purely mechanical explanation of that complex machine in the story, as sort of a substitute for explaining the situation we’re in. What I mean is…” I have to give it some more thought. “What I mean is, that’s his own device for explaining the kind of lives we lead. Not by talking about our situation, but by talking about the details of the machine.”

“That makes sense,” Oshima says and lays a hand on my shoulder, the gesture natural, and friendly. “I imagine Franz Kafka would agree with you.” He takes the cordless phone and disappears back into the building. I stay on the veranda for a while, finishing my lunch, drinking my mineral water, watching the birds in the garden. For all I know they’re the same birds from yesterday. The sky’s covered with clouds, not a speck of blue in sight.

Oshima most likely found my explanation of the Kafka story convincing. To some extent at least. But what I really wanted to say didn’t get across. I wasn’t just giving some general theory of Kafka’s fiction, I was talking about something very real. Kafka’s complex, mysterious execution device wasn’t some metaphor or allegory–it’s actually here, all around me. But I don’t think anybody would get that. Not Oshima. Not anybody.

Literary references:
• The Book of Thousand Nights and a Night, Translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton
• The Banquet, by Plato
• The Castle, by Franz Kafka
• The Trial, by Franz Kafka
• Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
• In The Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka
• Complete Works of Natsume Soseki
• The Tale Of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
• The Miner, by Natsume Soseki
• Poppies, by Natsume Soseki
• Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki
• Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki
• Trial of Adolf Eichmann, (Unknown)
• Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
• Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
• Agamemnon, by Aeschylus
• The Trojan Women, by Euripides
• Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
• Rhetoric, by Aristotle
• Electra, by Sophocles
• The Hollow Men (poem), by T. S. Eliot
• Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
• Poetics, by Aristotle
• Tales of Moonlight and Rain, by Ueda Akinari
• Matter and Memory, by Henri Bergson
• Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
• “Aladdin,” Added by Antoine Galland to French translation of 1001 Nights
• “The Frog Prince,” The Brothers Grimm
• “Hansel and Gretel,” by Brothers Grimm
• Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov
• A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Authorial references:
• Leo Tolstoy
• Federico García Lorca
• Ernest Hemingway
• Charles Dickens
Music references:
• Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles
• As Time Goes By, on OST Casablanca
• Blonde on Blonde, by Bob Dylan
• The White Album, by The Beatles
• “Mi chiamano Mimi”, from La Boheme, by Giacomo Puccini
• Sonata in D Major (Heavenly Tedious), by Schubert
• Crossroads, by Cream
• Little Red Corvette, by Prince
• Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding
• Archduke Trio, (by Rubinstein, Heifetz and Feuermann) by Ludwig van Beethoven
• First cello concerto, (solo by Pierre Fournier) by Haydn
• Posthorn Serenade, by Mozart
• Kid A, by Radiohead
• Greatest Hits, by Prince
• My Favourite Things, by Coltrane
• Getz/Gilberto, by Stan Getz
Artist/composer references:
• The Beatles
• Duke Ellington
• Led Zeppelin
• Prince
• Radiohead
• Beethoven
• Schumann
• Alfred Brendel
• Rolling Stones
• Beach Boys
• Simon & Garfunkel
• Stevie Wonder
• Haydn
• Bach
• Mozart
• Berlioz
• Wagner
• Liszt

To conclude, Murakami creates very specific architectural settings in order to bring across themes of melancholy, isolation and memory. The Komura library, removed from the urban context of Takamatsu, is timeless and has a rich relationship with most of the characters in the novel.  The architecture becomes a device to construct many of the riddles and metaphors in the novel which is complemented by his references to popular culture, music, and literature.

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