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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Kafka on the Shore

Murakami Haruki

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To purchase Kafka on the Shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 436 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Kafka on the Shore - US
Kafka on the Shore - UK
Kafka on the Shore - Canada
Kafka sur le rivage - France
Kafka am Strand - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 海辺のカフカ
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit heavy on the mysticism, but the story unfolds nicely

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 25/1/2005 Christopher Tayler
Financial Times . 14/1/2005 Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
FAZ . 24/3/2004 Jörg Magenau
The Guardian B+ 8/1/2005 David Mitchell
The Independent . 7/1/2005 Matt Thorne
Independent on Sunday A 2/1/2005 James Urquhart
The LA Times . 23/1/2005 Richard Eder
Neue Zürcher Zeitung C 5/6/2004 Karl-Markus Gauss
New Statesman . 24/1/2005 William Skidelsky
The NY Observer . 24/1/2005 David Thomson
The NY Sun . 18/1/2005 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times . 31/1/2005 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/2/2005 Laura Miller
The New Yorker . 24/1/2005 John Updike
Newsweek . 24/1/2005 Malcolm Jones
The Observer . 2/1/2005 Tim Adams
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2005 Steven G. Kellman
Salon . 20/1/2005 Charles Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle . 6/2/2005 Gideon Lewis-Kraus
The Spectator . 1/1/2005 Philip Hensher
Sunday Telegraph . 16/1/2005 Theo Tait
Sunday Times . 9/1/2005 Hugo Barnacle
The Times B 1/1/2005 Tobias Hill
TLS . 7/1/2005 Toby Lichtig
The Village Voice . 18/1/2005 Paul Lafarge
The Washington Post A 30/1/2005 Steven Moore
Die Welt A 20/3/2004 Sibylle Berg
Die Zeit . 25/3/2004 Helmut Böttiger

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most enthusiastic (but also with some reservations)

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)hough it will leave his long-term fans feeling slightly disappointed, there's no reason to suspect that the dauntingly prolific Murakami is in danger of going permanently off the boil. (...) Philip Gabriel's English-language text is also pretty clunky in places" - Christopher Tayler, Daily Telegraph

  • "Kafka on the Shore is undoubtedly a very readable book. Although the resolution is weak, Murakami builds suspense skilfully and draws you inexorably into a convoluted, fantastical storyline. (...) It may seem idiotic to complain about lack of plausibility in a meandering narrative featuring talking cats and ghostly spirits, especially one featuring a running commentary about metaphor and allegory -- but that is Kafka on the Shoreís main flaw, and one that makes it a more insubstantial experience than its weighty appearance suggests." - Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times

  • "Die Mysterien und die rätselhaften Beziehungen nehmen kein Ende. Murakami spielt mit dem Mythos-Material, und man spürt, welche Freude er daran hat. Er ist ein freundlicher Erzähler. Selbst die Toten sind glückliche Tote. Das Böse ist eine dunkle Macht, die besiegt werden kann, und wir, die Leser, sind auch dann auf der Seite des Guten, wenn wir nicht verstehen, was vor sich geht." - Jörg Magenau, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Unless I am being particularly dim-witted, loose ends remain far looser than in any Murakami novel to date. (...) The mythic motifs also remain frustratingly shady. (...) Murakami's style is rarely less than seductive and I read Kafka on the Shore in one non-stop feeding frenzy. (A second reading, with more reviewerly table-manners, was necessary.) For sheer love of a thumping narrative, the novel delivers gloriously." - David Mitchell, The Guardian

  • "Kafka on the Shore contains more than enough mystery to delight fans, and will also entrance newcomers. Murakami has suggested it is a book that needs more than one reading to comprehend fully, and it may also be true that some scenes that will seem baffling to a Western audience make more sense to Japanese readers. If you return to the beginning of the book after completing it, the prologue actually works best as an epilogue." - Matt Thorne, The Independent

  • "Brilliantly conceived, bold in its surreal scope, sexy, and driven by a snappy and often comical plot, Murakami's new work delves into the congested inner workings of our selves with characteristic brio. I would recommend it to anyone, but with a word of caution for the uninitiated. If you have not read Murakami before, you will enjoy this doorstop of a novel a whole lot more if you start, like this novel's protagonist, with a bit of circuit training from this author's earlier work." - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday

  • "Die haarsträubende Handlung, bei der sich der Autor souverän jeder narrativen Logik enthšlt, ist sinnvoll kaum nachzuerzählen, so beliebig wechselt sie aus der Wirklichkeit ins Mšrchen, aus dem griechischen Mythos in Fantasy, von naturalistischer Milieuschilderung zu mystischen Verzückungen. Im postmodernen Warenhaus liegt alles griffbereit nebeneinander, und kaum jemand hat sich so sorglos aus den Regalen geholt, was ihm gerade in die erzählerisch begabten Hände gefallen ist, wie Haruki Murakami, der ein quälend langatmiges Jugendbuch geschrieben hat." - Karl-Markus Gauss, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Kafka on the Shore is an extraordinarily silly novel -- and not just because of its specious metaphysical musings. No less ridiculous is Kafka's obsession with his genitalia. (...) Add to this the slow pace at which the story unfolds, and it is impossible to avoid concluding that Kafka on the Shore is a serious let-down." - William Skidelsky, New Statesman

  • "I donít know whether this is "magical realism" or whatever. Cats donít have to grasp literary theory if the story being told is as remorselessly compelling as this. I think itís far more useful to study the bare-bones directness of Mr. Murakamiís prose, the professional insistence on seeing what happened next and how it happened, and then the nearly throwaway touch of poetry." - David Thomson, The New York Observer

  • "However vague its allusions and overbearing its pretensions, however needlessly jive its English translation ("Jeez Louise"), this book makes for a beguiling and enveloping experience." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "So great is the force of the author's imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine." - Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender. (...) But beneath his feverish, symbolically fraught adventures there is a subconscious pull almost equal to the pull of sex and vital growth: that of nothingness, of emptiness, of blissful blankness. Murakami is a tender painter of negative spaces." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Kafka is definitely worth the trouble: it may be the Japanese author's weirdest novel yet, but it's also one of his best. Murakami borrows from everyone and everything -- Sophocles, horror movies, Japanese comics and movie-of-the-week schmaltz." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "All of Murakami's writing is suffused with a sense of loss, as if his face were pressed against the glass of next, more perfect worlds. While he was writing this book, he was completing a new Japanese translation of The Catcher in the Rye in the evenings, and you might find traces of Holden Caulfield in the character of Kafka Tamura, in his mistrust of adult lies about life, in his tender consciousness." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "Allusions to the author of Metamorphosis underscore the uncanniness of Murakamiís universe, but in its crosscutting structure, talking cats, burning of a manuscript, and enchanting fantasy, the novel is more akin to Mikhail Bulgakovís The Master and Margarita than anything by Kafka." - Steven G. Kellman, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Though Kafka on the Shore features scenes and characters, like Nakata, as marvelous as anything Murakami's written, the book as a whole is problematic: Its predicament is that in trying to be both kinds of Murakami novel, it manages to be neither." - Gideon Lewis-Kraus, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Kafka on the Shore is an ambitious and substantial new novel; in the end, probably it would only seem mildly disappointing to a Murakami devotee like me, and certainly bewilderingly pleasurable to anyone. (...) Normally, I am not a fan of books with talking cats and dream visitations, but Murakamiís utter gravity, like Lewis Carrollís, produces something not only serious but constantly interesting; the bizarre events of the book satisfyingly grounded by a classical, Dickensian technique." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "It has kookiness to burn, then; but it lacks depth and originality. (...) But, despite flashes of the old genius, this gift too frequently fails him in Kafka on the Shore. What remains has the pat credulity and the kitschy mysticism of urban myth." - Theo Tait, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(H)is novel is a disciplined mix of the thriller, the fantasy genre and the literary novel, and it carries a certain peculiar conviction. Yet again he has created a tale that you can steam through surprisingly quickly, but are likely to remember and puzzle over for a long time." - Hugo Barnacle, Sunday Times

  • "Murakamiís tenth novel is as nutty, funny and silly as any of those that have come before it. (...) But spellbinding though it may be, this is not Murakami at his best, and for long periods it is a frustrating piece of work." - Tobias Hill, The Times

  • "Murakami is so engrossing and wildly inventive that he can be forgiven his eccentric obsessions. (...) At times in Kafka on the Shore, Murakami can be accused of coasting. The diversions and oddities sometimes seem gratuitous, as he scats from the otherworldly to the bizarre." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Kafka on the Shore is so strange that even its chestnuts take on an air of mystery. It's like a recording in which you hear the scraping of a musician's chair: If the music is good enough, even the chair belongs to it." - Paul Lafarge, The Village Voice

  • "Murakami's spin on this theme and the Oedipus myth is daringly original and compulsively readable, enabled by Philip Gabriel's wonderfully fluent translation. Kafka on the Shore is warmly recommended; read it to your cat." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

  • "Murakami ist einer der Besten, wenn es darum geht, uns unsere Unterwelt zu zeigen, in der die Leichen der verlorenen Träume liegen. So leben wir alle weiter, gehalten von der Hoffnung, die große Liebe noch einmal zu finden, und sterben letztlich doch darüber." - Sibylle Berg, Die Welt

  • "Doch all die Anspielungen auf die Erwachsenenkultur verhalten sich letztlich wie Seifenblasen. Sie lenken nur davon ab, dass es sich um einen Roman fŁr Jugendliche handelt, die in die Geheimnisse des Lebens eingeführt werden wollen." - Helmut Böttiger, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kafka on the Shore is many things: the title of a song, for one, a painting for another. And the novel's central character is Kafka Tamura -- though he doesn't actually spend much time on any shore. Not any real one, anyway. But this is a Murakami novel and, as in all Murakami novels, as one of the characters observes: "The world is a metaphor, Kafka Tamura". No doubt: the kid is practically drowning in that metaphor -- but then aren't we all ?
       The novel is presented in alternating chapters, plot-lines that inevitably converge and cross (but without completely merging). The odd-numbered chapters are narrated by disaffected youth Kafka Tamura, who decides that his fifteenth birthday "is the ideal time to run away from home". He doesn't get along with his father, a famous artist, and there's a deep emptiness left by the absence of his mother and sister, whom he has not seen since he was a small child. Dad doesn't help matters by burdening him with one hell of a prophecy -- "More like a curse than a prophecy" -- foreseeing an Oedipal fate for Kafka, patricide and all. It's understandable, then, that Kafka wants to get out of there -- though, as one of the characters reminds him, running away may not be the ideal solution: "Distance might not solve anything." It didn't work for Oedipus, after all, and it will come as no surprise that Murakami doesn't allow (physical) distance to be much of an issue here either.
       The other story-line begins with earlier events, a mysterious occurrence from World War II. A class expedition into the woods ended with all the schoolchildren (but not the teacher) falling into coma-like states. Except for one, they snap out of it quickly, and seem to have suffered no ill effects (though they also have no memory of what happened to them). The exception is Nakata, who only comes out of this state weeks later and has been changed: he is completely empty. Whatever happened to him appears also to have affected his mind: he used to be a bright boy, but now seems a bit slow, and he never learns to read, for example. In the present day Nakata is retired, living pretty much without friends (and ignored by his family) but getting along well and happily enough.
       Destiny has something in mind for both Kafka and Nakata. They're not clear about it, almost drifting along, but they always seem to know which way to turn, compelled to act in a certain way. They can't express it in words (a common problem in Murakami books, and certainly afflicting many of the characters in this one), but they just seem to know what to do. This device is by far the most annoying aspect of the book, and never adequately explained: absolutely everything seems predestined in the book and the characters seem unable to do anything wrong (in the sense of what they're not supposed to), and, while that is the way novels work (the ending is printed and fixed before you start, and nothing is going to change it, or anything that happens along the way) it takes away some of the suspense. The fact that Murakami also resorts to occurrences that make the ancient Greek device of deus ex machina look tame by comparison doesn't help either.
       Kafka heads south, for Shikoku. Typically:

That's where I'll go. There's no particular reason it has to be Shikoku, only that studying the map I got the feeling that's where I should head.
       Feeling -- of this sort (and Murakami-characters have them all the time) -- always trumps reason. Needless, to say, Shikoku is the place he has to be. For a fifteen year-old runaway, things also work out remarkably well for him. Indeed: things constantly seem to work out -- but then since he seems to be guided by the Fates and nothing else, it's not that surprising (though it does get a bit boring, since Murakami allows for almost no suspense whatsoever).
       Eventually, Kafka is drawn to a library, the Komura Memorial Library, which turns out to be just the place for him. He finds a helpful friend in one of the workers, Oshima, and is also drawn to the head of the library, old Miss Saeki -- both if not quite outcasts at least very much on the periphery of society. There are a few problems -- Kafka wakes up in the middle of nowhere one night, his T-shirt all bloody, with no memory of what happened the past few hours -- but no matter, things just seem to work out.
       Nakata's adventures run parallel to Kafka's. Among his talents is his ability to talk to cats, which he has parlayed into a small business, helping locals find their lost cats. This, however, now leads him to an unsavoury character who also has a project involving cats -- one which Nakata puts an end to. And once that is done he too feels compelled to head south. Towards Shikoku, as it will turn out -- not that he understands much about geography or the like (but that's the way things work in Murakami novels: you don't have to know anything about geography -- in fact, it almost seems better not to concern yourself with it: you'll still be guided on your way).
       Like Kafka, Nakata pretty much always finds what he needs. No one takes advantage of him (except, in a way, the cat-man that sets this in motion), and somehow or other he manages to make his way south, eventually in the company of Hoshino, who doesn't know why he's going along with all this crazy stuff this old man leads him into but understands that it's the right thing to do. Needless to say, they'll eventually make their way to the Komura Memorial Library .....
       Besides the talking cats there are other touches of the unusual: from the semi-plausible (a Bergson-quoting prostitute) to the far-fetched (leeches and fish raining down from the skies) to the outrageous (an all-powerful being -- though it claims: "I'm neither God nor Buddha" -- dressed up as Colonel Sanders working as a pimp). There's also that boy called Crow that Kafka occasionally converses with (and there's also the matter of his name -- not his real one, and taken not so much because of what the Czech writer wrote ...), an unwieldy but important stone, the one-time hit-single, "Kafka on the Shore", considerable sexual confusion (with the Oedipus-story overshadowing much), and even some soldiers that got lost in the woods decades earlier. And then there's the whole other-worldly aspect of the novel. Much of it feels otherworldy anyway, what with the almost dreamlike state of these many characters, largely cut off from what might be considered normal life. Needless to say, dreams and visions also figure prominently -- and several of the characters literally aren't all there: memory-less Nakata understands only the present, Miss Saeki has only the past.
       In the novel the characters are allowed to become, in some way, whole. Murakami isn't entirely predictable in how he goes about this -- 'whole' may not be what the reader always expected -- but again, there is a lack of suspense in how this unfolds. Only Kafka appears to have a choice between worlds and futures, and he explores the alternative more deeply than most Murakami characters have. But in the end it doesn't really feel like he had much of a choice: the brief glimpse of free will more like a flash in the pan, barely convincing.

       Chapter by chapter Kafka on the Shore is an entertaining read: Murakami tells his stories well, and what happens is, at the very least, unusual. (It also bubbles over -- as Kafka occasionally threatens to -- into some strong violence, gruesome but effective stuff.) The characters' uncertainty can be a bit trying, especially since there is no cost to the uncertainty -- just sitting around, doing whatever they feel like is enough to eventually find them going the right way again -- but there's enough here to hold one's interest.
       The novel is meant to be a modern Greek tragedy -- not just because of the curse on Kafka, but in its whole world-view. But Murakami fails on this count in large part because he's not fully committed to tragedy: his characters are all properly tied to their inescapable fates, but Murakami is just too nice about these. The world is an uglier place than he is willing to describe.
       The failing of the novel can also be summed up in the fact that no one in it really gets lost. There is simply no doubt that everything will work out for these characters, as Murakami makes it much too easy for them. He starts out promisingly enough: some cats do get lost, and there's a strong fear that the one Nakata has been hired to find won't be found; as it turns out some of the cats do, in a way, remain lost, but after that it's all ... well, if not sunshine-endings, so at least very predictable. The book would have been much stronger if the reader might have been at least led to believe that one of these characters might not wind up as they should.
       Kafka is also not an entirely satisfying protagonist; surprisingly the empty Nakata is in many ways the more interesting character. Kafka has a lot on his shoulders, but perhaps he's the wrong age (just fifteen), and certainly his family difficulties should have been developed more fully. Dad's curse may be horrific, but by itself isn't compelling enough in this setting (and, after all, even Oedipus had more of a backstory).
       A lot happens in Kafka on the Shore but it is a disturbingly passive book. The world it describes -- be it metaphor or real -- is one in which fate rules all and free will seems non-existent. As such, Kafka on the Shore reads much like a religious fiction, willing an artificial world that works according to a simple (if peculiar) design, the end always the same (and like a religious fiction, the ending is not necessarily something one would describe as 'happy', but rather the way things ought to be). The characters are essentially robotic, going through the motions without appearing to be able to influence them. Murakami does quite a bit with them, but ultimately not enough: a wolf in sheep's clothing here could have done wonders for the story.
       Odd and philosophically certainly unsatisfying, Kafka on the Shore is still fairly enjoyable; Murakami-fans likely won't be disappointed. As far as the episodes and the quirky details go, Murakami offers as much as usual, and does it as well. However, unlike his best novels, it is too far (and, more significantly: too unconvincingly far) from the world we know to be a true success.

       Note: there's one aesthetically inelegant slip in the book: crows play a significant role, and Tamura even 'explains': "That's what Kafka means in Czech, you know -- crow." Unfortunately, that is not what 'Kafka' means in Czech. 'Kafka' mean 'jackdaw' -- an admittedly crow-like bird, but, as the very different English names suggest, not what is commonly considered a crow. Possibly Japanese does not differentiate between the two, explaining the mistake -- but it's awkward in the English translation. (The German translation makes the same mistake.)

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Kafka on the Shore: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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