First published in Japan in 2003 and very ably translated by Philip Gabriel in 2005, Haruki Murukami’s Kafka on the Shore blends elements of the Chinese/Japanese ghost story with western popular culture, high culture and philosophy into a mix that is downright entertaining when you allow yourself to be drawn in, as I found myself doing with no problem at all. The result is rather like a benign bout of psychosis, mind you. There is also some of the best writing about sex I have seen in a long time, and I always feel that is very hard to get right so that the cliches of pornography are somehow transcended, without it getting quite as ridiculous as, I’m afraid, is the case with some of the more famous scenes in D H Lawrence.
Partly this novel works because no matter how outlandish what is happening really is, it is realised with such precision. One review noted that Murukami was translating Catcher in the Rye into Japanese at the time he was writing this, and I can see the connection; equally the novel is an embodiment, and in places quite a sharp explanation of, the essence of Greek tragedy. It is of course pomo to the hilt, but more brilliant than that might suggest.
There are authorial intrusions, I would have thought, and what follows is one I agree with quite strongly. Who the speaker is exactly I won’t say: too much of a spoiler. Let’s just say the puritanical and bureaucratic aspects of political correctness have never been so well skewered, and that in a way that would give no comfort to conservatives of any kind.
“I’ve experienced all kinds of discrimination,” Oshima says. “Only people who’ve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts, Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I’m as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T S Eliot calls ‘hollow men’. People who fill up their lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to. Like that lovely pair we just met.” He sighs and twirls the long, slender pencil in his hand. “Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas — none of those bother me. I don’t care what banner they raise. But what I can’t stand are hollow people. When I’m with them I can’t bear it, and end up saying things I shouldn’t…”
…”Narrow minds devoid of imagination, intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgement can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”
Oshima points at the stacks with the tip of his pencil. What he means, of course, is the entire library.
“I wish I could just laugh off people like that, but I can’t.”
That is very much a word for our times, post 9/11, in a world of resurgent fundamentalisms of many kinds.
Hey, where are all those idiots who were moaning forty or fifty years ago about the novel being dead? Bit premature, weren’t they?