It's an old story: boy meets girl, girl turns out to be his mother, boy kills father. Sophocles told it 2,400 years ago, as have many authors since. But few have tackled the Oedipal tale with as much wit, verve and retail success as Japan's Haruki Murakami has in Kafka on the Shore. The book sold 550,000 copies in its first month on his home soil in 2002, inspiring a sequel comprised of selections from the 8,870 e-mail critiques Murakami received and his 1,220 replies. Kafka has become a best seller in Germany, South Korea and China, and now the English-language version has become a U.K. best seller.
The novel, Murakami's 10th and his first big one since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in 1997, features a 15-year-old boy who runs away from his Tokyo home shortly before his father's body is discovered in a pool of blood and heads for distant Takamatsu. There he meets a mysterious librarian, who may or may not be his long-lost mother, and a sexy hairdresser, who may or may not be his vanished elder sister. Filling out the cast is an old man who lost his memory in an apparent UFO encounter but gained the power to converse with cats. Also present is Johnnie Walker (of whisky fame, in tails and top hat), who kills felines to make flutes from their souls, and Colonel Sanders (the fried-chicken guy, in white suit and string tie), who moonlights as a back-alley pimp and supernatural fixer.
Fans of Murakami will find none of this unusual. Since Norwegian Wood, his 1989 tale of nostalgia and loss (4.5 million copies and counting), the former Tokyo jazz-club owner, now 56, has gained worldwide fame for his coolly narrated stories of odd disappearances, bizarre quests, disaffected youth and a Japan struggling with its wartime past. He is also noted for his nonfiction books about the 1995 Kobe earthquake and Tokyo subway gas attack, as well as his translations of works by American masters, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Raymond Carver. So vast is Murakami's fame that nearly as many books have been written about him as by him. A Taiwanese newspaper has even suggested that his visage may one day grace a Japanese banknote, as does that of Meiji-era novelist Soseki Natsume, a Murakami influence. Others Murakami admires, he has admitted, include Fitzgerald, Carver, David Foster Wallace and Tim O'Brien, all of them Americans. Indeed, Murakami's fondness for U.S. pop-cultural references has moved local critics to complain that he worships the West at the expense of things Japanese.
Guilty, with an explanation. As Kafka demonstrates, Murakami's Japan is a land of truck stops, rock music, Ray-Bans, Hollywood movies and workouts at the gym. But for his youngish, hip, history-oblivious fans, this is Japan. More than previous Murakami novels, Kafka embraces nearly the entire Western canon, with learned digressions on Beethoven, Schubert, Chekhov, T.S. Eliot and a pantheon of ancient Greeks. It's an education in a box, much like the small but mysteriously well-stocked Takamatsu library where Murakami's young Oedipus finds a job as live-in caretaker.
He is no ordinary 15-year-old. As well-read as a professor and alienated as Holden Caulfield (Murakami was translating J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as he wrote the novel), the boy calls himself Kafka Tamura, though you never learn his real name. He left home because his sculptor father was a sadistic beast who drove his wife and daughter to decamp years earlier, and who cruelly tells the boy that he will someday kill Dad and have sex with Mom and Sis. Determined to be "the toughest 15-year-old in the world," Kafka flees the prophesy, only to collide with it at Takamatsu. Complications ensue, as do very realistic wet dreams involving both the librarian and the hairdresser. But are they dreams? And did he really kill his father? Typically, Murakami leaves strands untied, though a shaken but wiser Kafka returns home to be "part of a brand-new world."
Kafka lacks the narrative consistency of Norwegian Wood and the noirish menace of his 1989 classic A Wild Sheep Chase. But what a tale! You never know when the cats will talk, the sky will rain sardines or yet another show-stopping character will step forward. In a Web poll of Japanese readers, most respondents said that if Kafka were dramatized, they would want to play Oshima, the librarian's impressively literate, transsexual assistant. Others preferred Hoshino, the earthy truck driver who helps the cat-talking old man in his quest to find a magic stone that can free the boy from his curse. Like any Murakami novel, Kafka defies both description and the urge to stop reading.