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Tom Jones Turns East

Murakami glides through two worlds

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Over the past 15 years or so, author Haruki Murakami has become an extremely popular author among young people in Japan. It's no wonder. His novels and stories are vividly contemporary, clearly evoking the images and moods of today's Japan, with its gaudy commercialism and emerging sexual freedom. More important than the contemporary settings, though, are Murakami's characters -- young people on existential quests in search of individual identity. This sort of characterization, familiar to English-speaking readers at least since Henry Fieldings' Tom Jones in the 18th century, has found a fresh market in Japan, where the dream of a collective national destiny, nurtured by the disastrous Pacific War and the ensuing 40-year economic miracle, finally ran aground in the late 1980s.

Murakami's latest novel, Kafka on the Shore, now available in this country in a translation by Philip Gabriel, has at its core a Tom Jones-like innocent on the road -- Kafka Tamura, as he calls himself. The self-styled "toughest fifteen-year-old on the planet" runs away from home on his 15th birthday to pursue what will become an Oedipal journey of spiritual and sexual discovery.

If Murakami had simply imported the Western bildungsroman, or novel of growth and maturation, to Japan in the person of Kafka Tamura, he wouldn't have accomplished anything original, but Murakami's plot transcends narrative cliché in spectacular fashion. Kafka's adventures bring to life a distinctive, post-modern environment where the spiritual, psychological, and objective components of reality merge to an amazing degree. Everything in Kafka's journey seems fated, and every intuitive decision he makes falls into a pattern that connects him with an old, simple-minded fellow named Nakata who he's never known.

Nakata lives near Kafka's neighborhood on the Japanese equivalent of Social Security. On a school outing during the Pacific War, he, along with 15 other classmates, was rendered mysteriously unconscious under circumstances the novel documents in some detail. All of the other children recovered, but Nakata's brain was literally "washed clean" of memories and much of the capacity to remember altogether. Despite his limited intellect, Nakata does have one distinctive talent -- he can talk to cats, and he turns this talent to account, becoming a "cat-finder" to supplement his meager government pension. In the course of searching for a lost cat, Nakata is drawn into intimate and violent contact with Kafka's family. Once Nakata has been introduced, his story and that of Kafka are told in alternating chapters.

Kafka and Nakata, though, aren't connected by "realistic" plot devices. Japanese literary and theatrical tradition is replete with ghosts and spiritual agents who interface with the material world. Only, for Murakami, they're not wearing the Noh or Kabuki masks. Instead, they're the images of the contemporary commercial world that Japan has imported: "Johnnie Walker," in his red suit and top hat, is a dangerous, violent spiritual agent; "Colonel Sanders," with his string tie, white goatee, and white suit, turns out to be a positive and helpful one. Nakata, it seems, inhabits the boundary land between objective and spiritual reality, and is somehow responsible for the overall adventure into which Kafka has embarked. Ultimately, it's up to Nakata to confront "Johnnie Walker," and then with the help of a callow truck driver named Oshino, as well as "Colonel Sanders," to find a way to close the dangerous opening between the two worlds before Kafka is engulfed and destroyed.

In the meantime, Kafka, searching for the mother and sister he can barely remember, is drawn to a seaside city where he will live in a strange library, be befriended by a transsexual, receive sexual initiation from a woman who may or may not be his mother, and be inspired by an unlikely hit recording from 30 years in the past. Like his namesake, he will descend into a labyrinth largely of his own construction to confront the complementary mysteries of his own identity and the motivations of those who interact with him.

Kafka on the Shore is not a book for readers who like their mysteries solved on the last page. Instead, it uses mystery as the raw material for the experiences it depicts. Like the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation, we enter a superficially familiar, neon-lit world, only to wonder who and where we are. Through Murakami's work, the ancient mysteries of Asia gain new guises and the search for self that we thought was so familiar takes a strange turn Eastward.

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