Hardcover, 436 pages
Published: January 26, 2005 by Knopf Publishing Group (1st published 2002)
Literary Awards: World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2006), Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Nominee for Longlist (2006), PEN Translation Prize (2006), Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis Nominee for Preis der Jugendjury (2005), Tähtifantasia Award (2010)
Three parallel stories run through the novel, and we don’t understand until later how they’re all intertwined. A precocious fifteen-year-old, who has renamed himself Kafka, runs away from home. He is fleeing a barren family life and a peculiar Oedipal prophecy. He takes up residence in a library, continuing his rich self-education.
In a second story, Nakata, an intellectually challenged man in his 60s, has an uncanny gift for communicating with cats. He uses this talent to earn money finding lost cats; one such mission drastically changes his life. In a third thread, we are taken back to World War II, glimpsing a strange event which threatened a group of schoolchildren.
This book is beautifully written, with rich imagery and splendid metaphorical language. The author has a knack for painting a scene vividly, creating a sense of reality that contrasts with the novel’s pervasive dream-like quality. The well crafted language and the concrete, “real” quality of many scenes sucks you in and carries you along with the flow of this chaotic, surreal journey, making you happy to go along for the ride. Here is a snippet:
My head propped up by prickly brambles, I take a deep breath and smell plants, and dirt, and mixed in, a faint whiff of dog crap. I can see the night sky through the tree branches. There’s no moon or stars, but the sky is strangely bright. The clouds act as a screen, reflecting all the light from below. An ambulance wails off in the distance, grows closer, then fades away. By listening closely, I can barely catch the rumble of tires from traffic.
The novel is full of odd metaphorical elements, like a man with half a shadow, World War II soldiers who have never aged, and fish and leeches raining from the sky. At moments, there is a Through the Looking Glass quality, with surreal riddles. The surreal twists get stranger and stranger, until we have a sociopath who calls himself Johnnie Walker, for the character representing the whiskey brand, and a pimp in the form of Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
Woven throughout all of this is discourse about fate, the relationship between the past and present, and various metaphysical ideas. Not to mention a prostitute who discusses Hegel. A philosophy student’s gotta earn a living somehow. 😉
I enjoyed this novel the way I’d enjoy a vibrant, beautiful surreal painting. I was mesmerized by the book’s confusing dream-like quality, and I enjoyed the author’s writing and the wealth of intriguing philosophical ideas strewn throughout the story. I definitely do not claim to understand all of it, but I liked the challenge. There are also strong elements of both Eastern spirituality and poetry flowing through the story. For example:
It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.
On the other hand, since understanding the plot and characters was a slippery experience, I didn’t fully connect with the people in the story. For me, this was a book that appealed more to the intellect than the heart. Since I am a reader who is led by my emotions, I didn’t fall in love with it. Of course, many people might have the opposite experience. The surreal elements of the story might bypass one’s brain, the way a poem or a dream might, making what it has to say about human experience all the more powerful.
Readers who enjoy challenging, unconventional novels will like this book. Be forewarned — there are bits of raw, somewhat disturbing sexuality, and an intensely horrible scene involving some cats.