by David Mitchell
320 pages, Sceptre, 2001
Kafka On The Shore
by Haruki Murakami
512 pages, Vintage, 2005
Palindromes by Pat Black
Reviewing these books induced that strange, queasy feeling you get when you turn over your test paper and the questions do not reflect in any way the minimal preparation you’ve carried out. I don’t even have them with me any more – they’ve long been given away, the fate of all the best novels. Taking a quick trawl through Wikipedia to refresh my memory of names and settings was an exercise in humiliation. Shinto influences… Lao Tsu… the backwards flowing waterfall clearly symbolising death… Hegelian themes… the symbols themselves, which reflect…
I missed just about all of this, sir. The dog ate my notes. Do I pay for the resit?
So, prepare to dip a toe into the steaming morass of my own stupidity. I’m just going to have to rely on what I felt, and the feelings that remain, regarding two of the best books I’ve ever read. An enormous pleasure from start to finish; weird, hopeful, erotic and occasionally frightening. Humbling, too; I couldn’t write books like Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell. They are in the top percentile.
Mitchell’s second novel, Number9Dream, owes a clear debt to Murakami’s influence – there’s a reference to him in there – although it’s not quite clear which book was written first (Mitchell’s was certainly published first in the west). They are both bildungsroman, set in modern Japan. In Kafka On The Shore we are concerned with 15-year-old Kafka Tamura’s journey as he runs away from his father’s home to find his lost mother and sister. In Number9Dream, 19-year-old Eiji Miyake is looking for both of his parents, and trying to unravel the riddle that is his own life.
The books are so rich, so densely plotted, and so demanding, and yet such a pleasure to read that it’s difficult to know where to start, or how to review them. In Kafka, we get parallel narratives involving the eponymous hero and Nakata, the old man who can speak to cats after a strange incident in his childhood. Nakata may or may not have killed Kafka’s father, a famous, if dissolute sculptor, as he seeks to fulfil a magical quest which is of vital important to Kafka as he fulfils his. The old man befriends Hoshino, a tough but trustworthy trucker, who helps him on his way.
Meanwhile, Kafka hides out in a library, run by the mysterious Miss Saeki who may or may not be his mother. On the way he is sheltered by a librarian, the androgynous haemophiliac Oshima, and is also given a helping hand, if you’ll forgive an awful pun, by Sakura, an older girl who befriends him and who may or may not be his sister. And, just to add another layer of complication, Kafka’s own narrative is split between himself and Crow, an alter ego.
Alright. Pause for a cup of tea.
In Number9Dream, Eiji is tormented by the death of his spirited twin sister Anju as a child, something he attributes to The Thunder God who lives on their home island. Their mother, who has abandoned them to live with their grandparents, is missing somewhere in Tokyo. After finishing school, he decides to seek out his missing mother and the father he never knew.
Along the way, he becomes entangled with a rich student called Yuzu Daimon, fall in love with the beautiful musician Ai and befriends Suga, a computer geek trying to hack into the Pentagon. He gets mixed up with the Yakuza thanks to the Mephistophelean manipulations of the wicked Yuzu, and there is a great deal of confusion between the father he is looking for, and the term “father”, which can be taken to mean “Godfather” in gangland circles.
Peppering all of this is Eiji’s fulminating imagination, fantasies of all kinds which delight, and sometimes confuse the reader. Just as you are certain of your footing and think that this teenager cannot possibly be mixed up with the mob, and that Eiji has imagined it all, certain signs such as black eyes sustained in confrontations appear in the true-life scenes. Then there’s muli-texturality, if that is even a word; something Mitchell employed so brilliantly in Cloud Atlas. The book is interspersed with other pieces of text, including the journals of a Kai Ten suicide submarine pilot and a surreal novel which Eiji reads involving the adventures of Goatwriter, an anthropomorphic farmyard animal who eats prose. Then there are video game references, perhaps a cipher to the imaginative games Eiji uses to cope with his predicaments and past traumas. Added to this, there’s a daring and brilliant evocation of John Lennon as a father figure that still makes me smile to think on it.
So we both have lost parents, and the search for them. One reference I did get in Kafka On The Shore is the queasily Oedipal cast to this search. Kafka gets a little too friendly with Sakura, a girl he meets on the bus who he imagines to be (or actually is) his lost sister. He gets friendlier still with the tragic Miss Saeki, sitting in her library in thrall to an old piece of music, who we imagine might well be his mother. Throw in Hoshino the trucker’s erotic adventures as he tags along with Nakata and the unfathomable sexuality of Oshima, and Kafka On The Shore is awash with sensuality, some of which makes for uncomfortable reading. Much of the book has the logic of a dream, or a myth, with the same sense of vague unease.
Number9Dream is less mystical, but more concerned with fantasy and imagination. This is where the book really struck home with me; it’s a dizzying representation of a young man I identified with very readily, a likeable, naïve lad going through several life-changing experiences within a short space of time, and the series of firecrackers which are set off in his mind as a result. Reality and fantasy are blurred, though never to the extent where it becomes annoying, or simple sleight-of-hand on the part of the narrator. Sometimes you’re thrown, but by the time you’re halfway through the book, you are never irrevocably confused as to what is actually “real” or not. I would have cursed this book if Mitchell had ever resorted to an “aaaah, but was it real, or was it not?” parlour-trick conclusion, which is almost as irritating as the “aaah, but was it a ghost, or was the main character mad?” denouements so beloved of horror writers. Mercifully, he does no such thing.
As for sex, Eiji is introduced to this through the activities of the young-man-about-town Daimon, although I was more drawn to his growing love for the Paris-bound musician with the beautiful neck, Ai. Near the end, there’s a scene which captures all the feelings of that time when you’re dating, and you really like someone, but can’t be sure how far things are going to go or if they even like you that much. This was so skilfully done that it was almost heart-breaking. Those moments of awkwardness in that couple of years when you fall between the stools of adolescence and adulthood; uncertainty, a kind of innocence and a terrible yearning.
There’s violence and death in both of these books, a sometimes shocking intrusion into narratives where you’re having a perfectly jolly old time. There are villains – in both books they are fathers, or father figures – and there are excellent side-kicks and friends to help along the way. And there are quests to be fulfilled, family secrets to unravel, which keep the plots moving.
I can’t praise these books highly enough; rich, complex, moving, technically brilliant, thematically dense, looking backwards into old, old narratives while looking forwards into brand new ones at the same time. Murakami is revered across the world for his tales, his melding of western culture and ancient eastern influences. Mitchell, who uses the same techniques in Number9Dream, isn’t quite so revered as his older, more illustrious peer. In time, though, I am quite certain he will be.