Thursday, March 03, 2005

Dreams Come True

As promised, here’s more on music in the novels of Haruki Murakami, this time focusing on his latest English release, Kafka on the Shore.

Although music plays an enormous role in Kafka on the Shore, it’s not something that figures largely in the reviews (at least the ones I’ve seen), no doubt because simply explaining the plot is challenge enough. Not that Kafka is impenetrably complicated or maddeningly slow; if anything, it’s a real page-turner. Basically, there are two intertwining plots (delivered in alternating chapters), which Murakami has infused with such dramatic momentum that it’s hard not to be obsessed with learning what happens next. In that sense, the book is rather like a traditional cliff-hanger, except that with the denouement Murakami takes us over the cliff — leaving some reviewers feeling like Wile E. Coyote, nervously poking a toe into the nothingness before plummeting.

So let’s just stick with the basics. The central protagonist is an unusually resolute young man named Kafka Tamura. A loner and bookworm, he has decided to run away from home on his 15th birthday. One reason he has decided to leave is the utter lack of connection he feels for his father, the only relative he has known since his mother and adopted sister left when he was four. The other reason he flees (we learn later) is that his father placed a sort of super-Oedipal curse on him, one that adds sex with the step-sister to the usual kill dad/fuck mom scenario. So he heads to Takamatsu, on the northern coast of Shikoku, in hopes of putting enough distance between himself and his father to keep the curse from coming true.

Curses being what they are, though, running away only hastens Kafka’s fate. He meets what he believes is his sister, a girl now called Sakura, on the bus from Tokyo. The day he arrives in Takamatsu, he visits a private library in suburbs where he comes acrosss Miss Saeki, the library director, and eventually becomes convinced she is his mother. He also befriends the androgynous librarian Oshima, who tells him that Miss Saeki had, years before, recorded a dreamy, strangely compelling hit song called “Kafka on the Shore.” Kafka listens to “Kafka” repeatedly, and is slowly drawn into an odd, dreamlike shadow reality. Meanwhile, the novel’s parallel plot, involving a strangely brain-damaged old man named Nakata, slowly becomes entangled in Kafka’s story. Nakata fell into an inexplicable coma while on a wartime school outing on a mountain in Shikoku, and when he regained consciousness he had lost his memory, his ability to read, and half his shadow. Nakata also travels from Tokyo to Takamatsu, and is somehow part of the execution and resolution of Kafka’s curse. Among other things.

Complicated, as I said. But the great thing about the novel is that no matter how strange the action gets — and it gets pretty strange at points — the characters are so vividly drawn that it’s easy to suspend disbelief and read on. And for me, a large part of what makes the characters believable is their distinctive tastes in music. Kafka, for example, doesn’t pack much when leaving home, but makes sure to include a walkman and 10 discs (“got to have my music”), and like most teens regularly turns to them for solace. Murakami doesn’t catalog the discs, but over time we get a good sense of what they include. Some are actual albums, others are compilations he’s burned himself. There’s a Prince hits album he listens to when working out, and Radiohead for when he’s alone at night. He also has some Ellington, some Cream, some Coltrane. For a 15-year old, his tastes are impressive but hardly implausible — there were no albums by Prince or Radiohead when I was 15, but otherwise I listened to a lot of the same stuff when I was that age. But what really struck me about Kafka’s relationship with music was that it felt exactly right. Granted, it’s hardly genius-level insight to show a teenager taking refuge in his favorite albums, but Murakami also shows how Kafka uses his sense of music to sort out other difficulties in life. There’s a wonderful sequence in Chapter 41 where Kafka — angry, afraid, confused — hikes deep into a forest in hopes of confronting the mystery deep within himself. Working from memory, he starts to whistle the sax solo from Coltrane’s recording of “My Favorite Things” as he hikes:

“Somewhere along the line Coltrane’s soprano sax runs out of steam. Now it’s McCoy Tyner’s piano solo I hear, the left hand carving out a repetitious rhythm and the right layering on thick, forbidding chords. Like some mythic scene, the music portrays somebody’s — a nameless, faceless somebody’s — dim past, all the details being laid out as clearly as entrails being dragged out of the darkness. Or at least that’s how it sounds to me. The patient, repeating music ever so slowly breaks apart the real, rearranging the pieces. It has a hypnotic, menacing smell, just like the forest.”

Genius, that. Kafka may not know where he’s going, but by following the music, somehow we do.

Elsewhere in the novel, Murakami uses musical taste to define various characters. Take, for instance, Hoshino, the young truck driver who winds up accompanying Nakata to Takamatsu. Hoshino’s taste is fairly banal when we meet him — at one point, Murakami has him improvising lyrics to a song by Yosui Inoue, a Japanese pop singer perhaps best-known outside Japan for having written the lyrics for the Puffy Ami-Yumi hit “Ajia no Junshin” (アジアの純真) — but while in a coffee shop in Takamatsu, he becomes an unlikely convert to classical music. Specifically, he’s won over by a performance of Beethoven’s piano trio in B-flat (the “Archduke Trio”), recorded by the “Million Dollar Trio” of Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and Emmanuel Feuermann. The owner of the café, a retired Education Ministry official, is quite the classical music buff, and waxes ecstatic over some of his favorites to Hoshino. The trucker later echoes the café owner’s enthusiasm to Oshima at the library:

“‘I prefer the Czech group, the Suk Trio, myself,’ Oshima said. ‘They have a beautiful balance. You feel like you can smell the wind wafting over a green meadow.’”

It’s a beautiful image Oshima conjures, and it nicely summarizes the languid virtuosity of the Suk recording. More to the point, the difference in taste helps define the two characters, particularly Oshima. While the café owner (a minor character) seems to exemplify the innate conservatism of connoisseurship, Oshima’s informed, discerning taste suggests someone unwilling to settle for the received wisdom of “established” taste, preferring instead to be guided by his own understanding and experience. Oshima also likes to listen to Schubert piano music while driving, particularly the D Major Sonata. Why? Because it’s a flawed composition, and so “all performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert.” Well, it does if you’re an engaged listener, and that’s Oshima in a nutshell.

Why is music such a major part of Kafka on the Shore? Personally, I think it has to do with the relationship between dreamworlds and reality in the story. Music is an ideal representation of that duality, being at once absolutely real and utterly ephemeral. Moreover, like dreams music can seem incomprehensible and unreal to some, yet possesses deep logic and narrative for those able to understand its language. And as with both, its experience is always internal, always individual, and ever so difficult to put into words.

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