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Issue #133 - September 2006

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Life on the Run

By Cheryl Morgan

I guess there will have been some surprise expressed around the SF&F community when Haruki Murakamiís Kafka on the Shore appeared on the short list for this yearís World Fantasy Award. I did, however, have the book on my "to read" pile. Iíd bought it on the recommendation of John Clute, who had been reading it when I visited him one day. He obviously liked it, and it takes quite a lot for Clute to recommend a book that contains talking cats. So what exactly is so good about it?

On my fifteenth birthday Iíll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library.

Thus speaks Kafka Tamura, the hero of the book. As you might guess, his real name isnít Kafka. He chose it, from a multitude of names he might have adopted from books he had read. That in itself gives us a clue to what the book is going to be like. What is more, Kafka has an imaginary friend, a boy his age who talks to him and helps give him courage for the great step he is going to take in life. The imaginary boy is called Crow; a word we later learn is rendered ĎKafkaí in Czech.

OK, so the book is full of literary references and allusions. Thatís going to make it popular with mainstream critics. A teenage boy with an imaginary friend is hardly the sort of thing that is going to classify a book as fantasy, is it? Of course not, but what about Nakata?

The other main viewpoint character of the book is a mentally retarded man who lost his wits in what might have been an episode of alien abduction during WWII. Up until then he had been an exceptionally bright boy. His two brothers have successful careers. But after an extended period in a coma he no longer knew who he was and lost the ability to read and write. Nakata is not as dumb as he seems, however. He does, after all, have the ability to talk to cats. Not many people can do that. And when he is in real trouble he can cause strange things to happen, some of them so odd that they make the newspapers. These are not the sort of things that normally happen in mainstream novels, as Kafka and his friend, Oshima, are well aware.

"Maybe itís a metaphor?" I venture.

"MaybeÖ But sardines and mackerel falling from the sky? What kind of metaphor is that?"

Then there is the reason why Kafka is running away from home. It is all about a prophecy, which happens to come true even though thereís no rational way it could have done so. Things do get very odd.

"But Iím not talking about science or law here."

"What you are talking about, Kafka," Oshima says, "is just a theory. A bold, surrealistic theory, to be sure, but one that belongs in a science fiction novel."

In other words, says Murakami, I know exactly what I am doing here, and you, dear reader, can take it or leave it.

Now one of the usual complaints leveled at mainstream writers who slum around in genre fiction is that they donít actually have much idea what they are doing. Unless they are steeped in the genre themselves, they tend to produce something amateurish and embarrassing that would not get past the slush pile in any reputable genre publishing house unless they noticed the name on the manuscript. Murakami, on the other hand, has a definite feel for fantasy. Here Kafka enters an enchanted forest.

I mean, the only plants Iíve ever really seen or touched till now are the city kind ó neatly trimmed and cared-for bushes and trees. But the ones here ó the ones living here ó are totally different. They have a physical power, their breath grazing any humans who might chance by, their gaze zeroing in on the intruder as thought theyíve spotted their prey. As though they have some dark, prehistoric, magical powers. Just as deep-sea creatures rule the ocean depths, in the forest trees reign supreme. If it wanted to, the forest could reject me ó or swallow me up whole. A healthy amount of respect and fear might be a good idea.

There are ghosts living in the forest. Or maybe not. Maybe they are just men caught in a time warp generated by the aliens who may or may not have visited Japan. Genre-bending? Yeah, Murakami can do that.

You see, what Murakami is concerned with (and why young Tamura chooses to call himself Kafka rather than, say, Dickens or Tolstoy) is imagination. And fantasy, of course, is imagination run riot. Fantasy is the sort of writing that not only imagines new stories in the existing world, but also imagines stories that take place in worlds where strange things can happen, where people can be entirely other than they are. It is written by people who think that perhaps the world could be a better place, or at least a more caring one. Oshima explains:

"Iíve experienced all kinds of discrimination," Oshima says. "Only people whoíve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts. Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think Iím as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Elliot calls Ďhollow mení. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware what they are doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you donít want to do. Like that lovely pair we just met."

Oshima, by the way, is a woman who chooses to live as a gay man. And the "lovely pair" is two feminist campaigners who have been complaining that shelving the books in the library by author in alphabetical order is phallocentric. Sorry about giving away that minor plot point, but hopefully it will encourage a whole new group of people to read this rather excellent book.

If I have one reservation about the book it is that I found parts of the translation rather stilted. Iím sure that an author as prominent as Murakami is going to get a very highly qualified translator, but that doesnít mean to say that the job is easy. There are cultural issues to deal with. What I really like about the translations of Zoran éivkovićís work is that they read just like the books were written by an English-speaking author. Alice Copple-Toöić does a fabulous job. But then, Serbia is a European country, so maybe éivković writes books that are easier to translate into English.

Where Philip Gabrielís translation appears to flounder occasionally is in the rendering of conversation (both character-character and character-reader) into English. It sometimes seems stilted and artificial. Can you imagine, for example, a 15-year-old American boy describing a woman he fancies as having "excellent posture"? Now I know nothing about the Japanese language. Maybe conversation in it is more stilted than English. Maybe Gabriel translated the speech patterns more literally in order to give the impression of Japanese people speaking rather than of, say, Americans speaking. If so he has probably achieved the effect he wanted. But he may also have made the book slightly less approachable to a Western audience. Thereís a whole convention panel in this debate.

That small niggle aside, however, I very much enjoyed Kafka on the Shore. Iím delighted that it has got a World Fantasy Award nomination, and Iím going to find the time to read more books by Murakami. He might not be everyoneís definition of what "fantasy" is all about, but Iíd much rather read him than another 10-volume trilogy about a young farm boy who discovers that he is a Lost Prince destined to save The Land from an Evil Overlord.

Oh, wait a minute, I havenít told you what the book is all about. My mistake. The book is about a 15-year-old boy who runs away from home and an old man who talks to cats. You donít need any more than that, do you?

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami - Harvill - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee