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This is the book that almost killed reading as a pasttime for me. I say “almost” because I managed to put it down in time and not force myself to finish it because I paid money for the book and because I don’t like to have half-read books on my shelves.

Evening is ‘laborious’ in many ways – it’s laborious to read and I’m sure, to write. Samarasan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and you can almost hear the voices and critique of her peers in Evening in the long-winded verbose style of writing, as if trying to accommodate everyone’s suggestions for a better way of describing an event, a thing, a place, a feeling. In the end, this book reads like a thesaurus. It feels like someone tried to join the words in a thesaurus into a plot and story.

I struggled to get to the 100th page, a marker I usually use as the point where I decide if I like a book or not. For evening, I went up to page 200 just to give it a second chance and still I did not like it. I waited in vain for the painful multi-descriptions to stop but Samarasan persisted.

No doubt, the storyline is there – a death in the family, a mystery as to how it happened, ghosts in the house seen only by the youngest child, race riots in a turbulent time, and a marriage gone stale – all set during Malaysia’s first years after Independence. It’s just the writing style that irks me. It irks me even to think about the book and I’m glad I stopped reading it before it turned me against reading altogether.

If you like dictionaries and thesauruses, then you might enjoy this. Otherwise, it’s not a book I would recommend to anyone. One word – labourious. Or as Samarasan would put it – arduous, backbreaking, burdensome, effortful, fatiguing, forced, heavy, herculean, labored, onerous, operose, ponderous, rough go, stiff, strained, strenuous, tiresome, toilsome, tough, tough job, wearing, wearisome, wicked.

Part One of Review Page 1 – 232

Kafka is the translated work of Haruki Murakami, originally in Japanese – 海辺のカフカ Umibe no Kafuka and my first book by Harukami.
What struck me straight away was the ease of reading the language presented. I’d expected the opposite so this was a pleasant surprise. The other thing I noticed was the dialogue between the characters which was rather ‘wordy’, just like in anime translated into English; as if words are said purely to fill in the time that lips are moving. This made for awkward exchanges that are quite noticeable.

So, alright. Let’s start with the characters encountered so far.

. . . . . . .

Kafka Tamura: This is the lead character. A lanky 15 year old boy who runs away from his father in search of his mother and sister both of whom he has never met before. He gets on a bus in Nakano Ward and travels to the town of Takamatsu, south of Tokyo. A bit strange at first but slowly I realised also that his conversations with a Boy Named Crow were actually conversations with his own alter-ego, “Crow“. Crow tells the runaway Kafka throughout the book that he has to be the “toughest fifteen year old boy in the world”.

Satoru Nakata: An old man. His is a parallel story in the book which I am still waiting to cross paths with Kafka’s. So far at this point, nothing. Nakata is retarded/mentally challenged, a condition that he found himself in as a child after being unconscious for weeks following a flash in sky which he and a group of 16 small children saw while on a mushroom gathering trip in the forest during World War II. Like Nakata, all the children had lost consciousness and collapsed after witnessing the flash but all woke up a few hours later, except for Nakata. When he came to, he found that he could not read and speak properly anymore. He was no longer the bright child that he used to be. However, he suddenly had an ability to talk to cats. In Kafka, he speaks to the cats Mimi, Kawamura, Goma and Otsuka. These cats (except for Otsuka), are captured towards the middle of the book by Johnnie Walker, a strange character who dresses exactly like his whiskey namesake who has a penchant for killing cats, slicing them open and eating their beating hearts before sawing off their heads and displaying them on a tray.

Nakata earns a living as a tracker of lost cats, earning a fee for finding the neighbourhood’s lost pets. He also gets a subsidy (or sub city, as he calls it) from the Governor. He comes across Johnnie Walker while looking for the lost pet Goma.

Johnnie Walker: A feared person (at this stage of the books). Cats warn Nakata of him but Nakata brushes the warnings aside and waits in an empty plot of land for Goma or the man with the hat (Walker) to show up. Later on in Johnnie Walker’s house, after seeing him kill cats, Nakata is consumed by anger and stabs Walker to death and leaving his body in a pool of blood. Nakata collapses into a couch shortly after in Johnnie Walker’s house but wakes up in the empty field again with the cats Mimi and Goma around him. Was it a dream? Where did the blood stains on his clothes go to? Confused, the simple minded man walks into a police station to confess the ‘murder’ but is not taken seriously by the officer on duty. Strangely also, Nakata was suddenly able to prophecize that fish would fall from the sky. This only earns Nakata more of the officer’s ridicule.

But fish do fall, as predicted, from the sky. And the body of a man is later found, stabbed. Having ignored the old man and done nothing – not even taking down the report, the officer tries to cover up the fact that Nakata had been to the station in order to protect himself.

Sakura: In Takamatsu, Kafka stays at first in a hotel but after finding himself waking up in a park with blood on his clothes, decides to call on Sakura a fellow passenger he met on his bus trip to Takamatsu. They’d talked and she gave him her contact details. He asks to spend the night at her place, afraid of going back to the hotel in that state for fear of raising suspicions that he was a runaway. In the middle of the night, as both are unable to sleep, Kafka climbs into Sakura’s bed at her invitation. He has an erection and she gives him some relief using her hand. This is a strange part of the book, and it made me uncomfortable as certain parts seem to allude to the possibility that Sakura may be Kafka’s sister.

I also notice that Harukami writes a few times rather matter of factly, about Kafka’s masturbation and acts of cleaning and scrubbing of genitals. As if trying to sound liberated in writing about these, I felt they stemmed more from Harukami’s subconscious rebelling against Japanese cultural suppression of sex and sexuality. As a result, it made the character of Kafka look like a pervert more than anything else. Just my observation.

Oshima: After deciding not to return to the hotel and having left Sakura’s flat after one night, Kafka goes to the Komura Library (a place he frequents daily while in Takamatsu) and seeks the help of the librarian Oshima. “I just need a roof over my head”, Kafka pleads. Oshima obliges and brings Kafka to the countryside to a log cabin where he leaves Kafka alone for a few days. I enjoyed this part of the book, where we read about Kafka’s fear of the darkness (night) and the relief and beauty of the surroundings during the day. Later on, Oshima returns and moves Kafka to live in the library, working as his assistant.

Miss Saeki: Miss Saeki is Oshima’s superviser at the Komura Library. While at this stage of the book Kafka has not met Miss Saeki, we learn that she was the lover of the eldest son of the Komura family. Separated (he left to study in the city), she wrote poetry and love songs dedicated to him. He becomes active in student politics and the upheavals of the 1960s, eventually being killed during a student uprising on the campus.

At around the time of his death, she had a written a poem and set it to piano and sang it in front of people. Long story short, Miss Saeki’s song – ‘Kafka On the Shore’, became a hit single. After learning of his death, she ceased to sing anymore. Some years after the tragedy, she returned to Takamatsu and found a job taking care of the Komura family’s library.

Oshima explains to Kafka that Miss Saeki is a bit odd, “There’s one other thing I’d like you to be aware of. Miss Saeki has a wounded heart. To some extent that’s true of us all, present company included. But Miss Saeki has a special individual would that goes beyond the usual meaning of the term. Her soul moves in mysterious ways. I’m not saying she’s dangerous – don’t get me wrong. On a day-to-day level she’s definitely got her act together, probably more than anybody else I know. She’s charming, deep, intelligent. But just don’t let it bother you if you notice something odd about her sometimes.”

. . . . . . .

Part-Review: Some quirky bits in the book. Again, I think owing to Japanese culture.

I’m still enjoying the book so far, every page beckons you to turn the next. Nakata’s tale is enchanting, of fish falling from the sky and talking cats. Surreal. Whereas Kafka’s is a journey of self discovery. (Part Two to follow)

Part Two of Review Page 233 – 615

haruki-murakami

Haruki Murakami

I finished the book at midnight last night. This is the rest of my review.

. . . . . . .

Surreal” is again the best word to describe this book. Many nights I read and gently drifted off to sleep holding this book in my hands. Of talking cats, spectral beings, Johnnie Walker murdering cats and Colonel Sanders pimping college call-girls, this is a book that will blur the line dividing your conscious waking hours and that dreamlike state you’re in as the tides of slumber rolls quietly over.

Two tales run parallel in Kafka. There is the journey by the runaway Kafka Tamura and then there’s the other one by Nakata, the tracker of lost cats. In the end, I realised the common theme in both their stories. Both are searching for something. In Kafka’s case, he is seeking the love of his mother and sister. He searches for the reasons why he was abandoned by his mother when he was four. What could have led his mother to such a decision? He is looking for something he never had.

Nakata on the other hand, is looking for what he had but was taken away from him as a child – taken from his self, his very being. He is incomplete. He has half a shadow and not all of himself. He is looking for something taken from him, something he lost.

Both are linked together by a magical thing called the Entrance Stone, a gateway between this world and another realm where people go to escape, to find things .. where souls go when they depart. A place called “limbo”, a place between Heaven and Hell.

I won’t go too much into the details of the plot or the rest of the characters such as Hoshino, Colonel Sanders, etc. Suffice to say this second part of the book gets much more interesting as the plot races towards its conclusion where both journeys meet and intertwine.

There are humourous moments, such as the exchanges between Nakata’s volunteer travel companion, Hoshino and KFC’s Colonel Sanders as he leads Hoshino through the maze of alley-ways, much like the White Rabbit in Alice Through the Looking Glass – except that it wasn’t down a hole but to a love hotel for a rendezvous with a prostitute. Or Hoshino’s conversation with Nakata the corpse (Oops! Have I revealed too much?)

Anyway – the conclusion does not afford a resolution. Questions linger about the murder of Kafka Tamura’s father – who actually did it? And is Miss Saeki Kafka’s mother? And what about Sakura? I also don’t quite get the symbolism behind the attack on Johnnie Walker (who I thought was supposed to be dead) by the Boy Named Crow.

I did some background reading, and I found this on wikipedia –

After the novel’s release, Murakami’s Japanese publisher set up a website allowing readers to submit questions regarding the meaning of the book. 8,000 questions were received and Murakami responded personally to about 1,200 of them [citation needed]. In an interview posted on his English language website, Murakami stated that the secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. Murakami: “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.”

Well, I’m not that driven to try and solve the riddles. Overall, I’m happy with just one reading. I can live with not knowing the answers, leaving the magic unexplained. I can imagine this book being made into a anime movie, it has all the wondrous elements in it. Truly brilliant. I enjoyed it. Or to paraphrase old Nakata – “Yes, this book is one of my favourite books”.

Magical!

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