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Into the Labyrinth: The Dream Logic of Kafka on the Shore

2008-2009, Volume 1
by Joy Meads



Midway through Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore, Kafka and his friend Oshima take a moment to puzzle over the meaning of a bewildering recent meteorological phenomenon. On two occasions, Japanese suburbanites have been startled by showers of sea creatures falling from the sky. Kafka hazards an explanation: “Maybe it’s a metaphor?” Oshima is skeptical, “Maybe… But sardines and mackerel and leeches raining down from the sky? What kind of metaphor is that?”

Strange things happen in Kafka on the Shore and it’s not always immediately clear why. Like the dense, darkling imagery of Miss Saeki’s song, the novel is full of images and events that resonate viscerally but resist logical explanation. Indeed, readers looking to interpret the action through a rationalist framework will quickly find themselves overwhelmed and exhausted. Shortly after Kafka on the Shore was released, Murakami’s Japanese publishers launched a website soliciting clarifying questions about the novel from the public. They quickly garnered 8,000 submissions, of which Murakami answered 1,200. Unfortunately, the website has not been translated, so English speakers can’t read the results of what must have been an arduous effort for the author. Murakami generally shies away from offering authorial explanations of his work, preferring to let his audience discover personal meanings. He has said:

"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."

This is not to say Murakami’s work is esoteric or difficult. Actually, reading Kafka feels quite effortless; it’s a thoroughly engaging page-turner. Part of this surely has to do with Murakami’s gift for storytelling: he has an admitted affinity for mass-market genre fiction—particularly horror and detective stories—and he borrows narrative devices from those forms. It’s also due to his sense of humor—the books are very funny. (In Kafka, a supernatural being manifests itself as Colonel Sanders. When Hoshino grills him about why he’s assumed that form—a choice Murakami has declined to elucidate in interviews—the being offers a simple explanation: “I was toying with the idea of Mickey Mouse, but Disney’s particular about the rights to their characters.”) Mostly, however, it’s because the logic of the novels, although it’s not the not the logic of waking life, is nonetheless familiar.

Murakami explains his writing process as analogous to dreaming: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I'm still awake. I can continue yesterday's dream today, something you can't normally do in everyday life. It's also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it's not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.” Murakami’s English language website offers a whimsical glimpse of how detritus from his subconscious inscribed itself onto the Kafka on the Shore. It features a gallery of photos from Murakami’s daily life, including a desktop paperweight that may have been the inspiration for Nakata’s entrance stone. As a natural result of Murakami’s creative process, Kafka on the Shore (and the rest of Murakami’s work, with the exception of Norwegian Wood, his one foray into realism) operates according to the logic of dreams. Events, images, and symbols in the novel cannot be understood through unitary definition but rather achieve meaning through an accretion of associative links. In this way, Murakami’s novels reflect the structure of our own minds, where ideas ripple across interconnected neurons and every remembered thought contains the essence of the moment of its creation.

In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami’s protagonist embarks the same journey the author did in creating him. Murakami describes the “shore” in Kafka on the Shore as the border between the conscious and the unconscious minds. It’s “a story of two different worlds, consciousness and unconsciousness. Most of us are living in those two worlds, one foot in one or the other, and all of us are living on the borderline. That's my definition of human life.” He elaborates, “I don't read much Jung, but what he writes has some similarity with my writing. To me the subconscious is terra incognita.” Although the journey that Kafka takes is in one sense physical—he travels to Shikoku, to the library, to the woods—it is in a deeper sense an exploration of self. Kafka’s artist father was best known for a work titled Labyrinth, a reference to mythical labyrinth of Crete: a dark, disorienting maze which Theseus was forced to navigate to slay the minotaur hidden in its depths. In the novel, Oshima explains the origin of the concept of the labyrinth to Kafka “It was the ancient Mesopotamians. They pulled out animal intestines—sometimes human intestines, I expect—and used the shape to predict the future…So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside.”

The exploration of the self is a dangerous business. Kafka is rife with imagery of blood, the substance that keeps us alive but also symbolizes carnage. Our most unspeakable instincts—our drives for violence and sex, the forces that coalesce in the Oedipus myth looming over the novel—are monsters hidden within the labyrinth. Joseph Campell sees myth’s origin in “the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives.” These drives are hidden in the shadows of our unconscious, and we must weather their blinding unreason in order to confront them. When we venture from the daylight logic of consciousness to the labyrinth’s dark confusion, we would do well to remember Crow’s warning before Kafka begins his journey:

"The storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine."

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