Two mysterious quests form the core of Murakami’s absorbing seventh novel, whose encyclopedic breadth recalls his earlier successes, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997).
In the first of two parallel narratives, 15-year-old Kafka Tamura drops out of school and leaves the Tokyo home he shares with his artist-sculptor father, to seek the mother and sister who left them when Kafka was four years old. Traveling to the small town of Takamatsu, he spends his days at a free library, reconnects with a resourceful older girl who becomes his de facto mentor, and begins to reenact the details of a mysterious “incident” from more than 60 years ago. In 1944, a group of 16 schoolchildren inexplicably “lost consciousness” during an outing in a rural mountain area. Only one of them, Satoru Nakata, emerged from the incident damaged—and it’s he who, decades later, becomes the story’s second protagonist: a childlike, scarcely articulate, mentally challenged sexagenarian who is supported by a possibly guilty government’s “sub city” and possesses the ability to hold conversations (charmingly funny ones) with cats. With masterly skill and considerable subtlety, Murakami gradually plaits together the experiences and fates of Kafka and Nakata, underscoring their increasingly complex symbolic significance with several dazzling subplots and texts: a paternal prophecy echoing the Oedipus legend (from which Kafka also seeks escape); a faux-biblical occurrence in which things that ought not to be in the skies are raining down from them; the bizarre figures of a whore devoted to Hegel’s philosophy; and an otherworldly pimp whose sartorial affectations cloak his true menacing nature; a ghostly forest into which Russian soldiers inexplicably disappear; and—in glancing allusions to Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki—a clever homage to that author’s beguiling 1905 fantasy, I Am a Cat. Murakami is of course himself an immensely reader-friendly novelist, and never has he offered more enticing fare than this enchantingly inventive tale.
A masterpiece, entirely Nobel-worthy.