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Oedipus in Japan


By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Knopf, $25.95, 446 pp

Reviewed by KIT REED

Can a novel be too good to write about? Kafka on the Shore comes close. There are hundreds of wonderful passages, heavily loaded and rich with significance _ too many to quote. There's too much to say. Where the novels of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami have always been intelligent, inventive and complex, this one is brilliant.

Telling the stories of a fleeing boy, a grieving woman and an old man damaged during a mysterious incident in World War II, Murakami has written a superb metaphysical novel. Complex as it is, this reads like an adventure, the kind that hooks the reader and doesn't let go until the end.

In earlier works like The Wind-up Bird Chronicles and A Wild Sheep's Chase, Murakami's central characters sleepwalk through their stories in a state of dreamy confusion. Events roll off them like water off plate glass. They note what's happening to them _ the divorce in Sheep's Chase and the missing wife in Wind-up Bird _ but where desertions and disappearances might push other men to rage and crimes of passion, these characters are curiously without affect. They take what happens to them coolly, moving through their lives like observers who record but don't necessarily react.

With Kafka on the Shore, the gloves come off.

In this dense, fascinating spin on the Oedipus myth, Murakami's characters plunge into life. They are engaged and excited, angry and afraid. From the boy who calls himself Kafka to the beautiful, remote librarian he loves, these people care enormously about present events _ and the mysterious past.

Kafka Tamura is fleeing his vengeful father and an ugly prophecy: that Kafka will kill his father and sleep with his mother and his sister, who left when he was small. Encouraged by Crow, his unearthly alter ego, he resolves to be the world's toughest 15-year-old. He leaves Tokyo and seeks refuge in the serenity of the Komura library, a monument to a young man who died. There he meets Miss Saeki, who will become his lover in this world and in a dream world where Kafka has more than one sexual adventure. At the library he is mentored by the sexually ambiguous Oshima, who takes him to a remote cabin deep in a forest where it's all too easy to get lost.

Intercut with Kafka's tale are accounts of a mystifying event in which several schoolchildren collapse in the woods and wake up with no memory of what happened to them. All but one return to normal, but little Nakata is profoundly changed. By the time we meet him he is an old man with the mind of a child and the ability to talk to cats.

A scientist interviewed about the incident that left Nakata in a coma floats a theory that informs the book:

"The term "spirit projection' sprang to mind. Are you familiar with it? Japanese folk tales are full of this sort of thing, where the soul temporarily leaves the body and goes off a great distance to take care of some vital task and then returns to reunite with the body. . . . The notion of the soul not just leaving the body at death but _ assuming the will is strong enough _ also being able to separate from the body of the living is probably an idea that took root in Japan in ancient times."

This explains the adult Nakata's encounter with a spirit called Johnnie Walker, who orders Nakata to kill him. Later Nakata runs into a spirit who looks like Kentucky Fried Chicken's Col. Sanders. In the peaceful Komura library, Kafka has been doing some traveling through time and space himself. He reflects:

The territory here is treacherous and weird, but no matter what happens, the characters' level of engagement makes it powerfully real. They care about everything they do and they care terribly about what's happening to them.

Haruki Murakami lived abroad until 1995, when two events took him back to Japan: the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo assault on the Japanese underground in which hundreds were poisoned by sarin gas. He interviewed the sarin survivors for Underground (2000), a nonfiction book about the attack. After the Quake (2002) is a collection of short stories that suggests the disasters changed the way he writes about people.

Instead of being viewed from the outside, like figures in a landscape, the people in this new novel seem compelled. They are driven from within by an author who has learned how to get inside the skin of his characters, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel.

It is as if the author has spent all his working life 'til now preparing to blow us away.

Kit Reed's new novel is Thinner Than Thou. Her next short story collection is due in September.