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Book Review: Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami)

THE JAPANESE NOVELIST, HARUKI MURAKAMI (1949 -) IS A LITERARY PHENOMENON. His novel, Norwegian Wood, a moving love story, sold four million copies in Japan. Both the Japanese original and English translation of his latest work, 1Q84 (a multi-lingual pun on Orwell), had queues snaking around bookshops in London and New York at midnight, drawing parallels with the Harry Potter phenomenon.

A bar and jazz-club owner before bursting onto the literary scene, Murakami weaves a kaleidoscope of literary and cultural references in all his books. He alludes to scientific theories of a multiverse or series of interlocking alternative universes, which makes one question ‘What is reality?’

Kafka on the Shore (published in 2002) tells the story of two main protagonists, in alternating chapters. The first protagonist is the eponymous hero, the fifteen-year old Kafka Tamura, as he styles himself. His father, a wealthy Tokyo sculptor, prophesises that Kafka is destined to murder him and sleep with his mother and sister. The added poignancy is that Kafka has been abandoned by his mother and sister at the age of three. The father destroys all photographs in the house and Kafka has no idea what they look like, if they are alive or where they live. Kafka has an emanation or shadow, ‘the boy called crow’ (‘Kafka’ means ‘crow’ in Czech), who urges Kafka for much of the book to be ‘the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world’.

The other, parallel hero is an old man, Nakata. As a boy evacuee during World War II, from Tokyo to the province of Shikoku, Nakata is brain damaged during a mushroom picking school trip in a nearby forest. The children and teacher see a mysterious flash of light in the sky and lose consciousness. The other children recover but Nakata remains in a coma and is sent back to Tokyo. On regaining consciousness Nakata says he became ‘a shadow’. This is a significant parallel with Kafka’s ‘the boy called crow’. Nakata loses his ability to read and write but finds he can communicate with cats. This leads to a job with the municipality as catcher of stray cats. There are delightful passages of Nakata’s conversations with his neighbourhood cats, which carry echoes of Soseki’s talkative cat protagonist, in I Am a Cat. Nakata befriends a Siamese called Mimi who has a proclivity for quoting Puccini operas.

The centre of the book, in so far as one can locate an epicentre at all, is a macabre and hallucinatory killing by – or perhaps not by – Nakata of ‘Johnnie Walker’, who may or may not be the whisky label and may or may not be Kafka’s father, to prevent a cat-killing orgy by ‘Johnnie Walker’, who has a penchant for tearing out the still pulsing hearts of the cats and using their souls to make flutes. Nakata goes on the run and is picked up by a long-distance lorry driver, Hoshino. Nakata reminds Hoshino of his own grandfather. The two travel to the provincial city of Takamatsu in Shikoku.

Meanwhile, to escape the Oedipal curse of his father, Kafka too embarks on a kind of pilgrimage – echoes of the haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s journey to the North – of his own. He travels from Tokyo, his home town to Takamatsu, Shikoku. Here, Kafka is welcomed in a private library by the librarian, Oshima, a transgender gay figure, and Miss Saeki, the manager, who may or may not be Kafka’s mother with whom Kafka eventually has a sexual relationship. The motif of the shadow is once again played out in the characters of Miss Saeki, who is a nebulous presence, and Oshima, who transcends gender classification. Oshima is Kafka’s intellectual and emotional mentor and it is in the forest where Oshima has a cottage that Kafka has an epiphanic reckoning.

Throughout the book there are numerous references to music. The interweaving of plots, encounters and people resembles a Bach fugue where ambiguities are frequently unresolved and thereby haunting. Kafka and Nakata never meet but their destines are inexplicably intertwined. We never find out if Miss Saeki is Kafka’s mother, whether Nakata or Kafka himself killed his father, what Osima’s true sex is, whether there really was a Johnnie Walker cat-killer.

What particularly appealed to me is that Komura Memorial Library, where Kafka works and lives briefly, is described as being dedicated to the works of tanka and haiku writers, immediately evoking literary allusions to Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki. There are some tantalising passages about the library being used by haiku poets.

Another unforgettable aspect of this novel is a parallel alternative reality in the forest where a colony of beings live in detachment from the world – a kind of zombie-Avalon. Kafka wanders into this hinter world and faces the prospect of being swallowed into its shadowy existence. He returns, determined to face the aftermath of his father’s murder.

There are no neat resolutions to the parallel strands of Kafka and Nakata’s stories. What one is left with is a mesmerising sense of atmosphere, as both plot and characters dissolve, a haunting sense of claustrophobia and limitless possibility and unresolved contradictions. Murakami is sympathetic to his characters: even quite wicked ones like Johnnie Walker have a kind of insane pathos about them.

— Golden Langur

Book Review: Eureka (Edgar Allan Poe)



The universe and all therein, from one singularity to another singularity, and the impossibility of infinity. What is God?


It would be tempting to think that a scientific essay written – with the intention of its place in the literary canon being that of a prose poem – in 1848 as having little reference to the modern world. Think again. This book is very relevant to our modern world.
It is not, by any means, an easy read. The language is that of the time in which it was written, and the sentence construction/grammar is consequently somewhat alien to modern readers, but its content is so intriguing that it would be a pity to be put off by such considerations.

Within the slightly over 100 pages of this book you will find theories of the formation of the universe, black holes (non-luminous suns) and some ideas that may seem odd as well: for example, the discussion of seventeen planets comprising the solar system, at a time before Pluto had been discovered and then discounted as a planet; an explanation of the formation of the planets and their satellites, and even a theory of the existence and nature of God. All this from a man who was justifiably famous for his poetic and fictional writings may cause the reader to wonder how much of this was intended as fiction too. My answer would be, none of it. These are the thoughts of a very active and enquiring mind. Although Poe suffered much of his life with health and alcohol addiction problems, the arguments presented in this work are cogent and worthy of considered thought for both their content and their presentation.

One of the most interesting arguments put forward here is that infinity is an impossible concept because there always has to be an end to anything that exists: an intriguing point of view. Poe also makes reference to the works of many other scientists in this essay and shows a wide-ranging knowledge, and deep understanding, of the works of Kepler, Newton and many more. His arguments for the necessary existence of a repulsive force to counteract the attractive force of gravity are compelling, even now that this is a known fact.

As Sir Patrick Moore says in his foreword to this edition, ‘Read this essay carefully. There is much more to it than meets the eye.’

Concluding comment:

This is a book that rewards many fold the time and thought invested in reading it and, as with so many things in life, the greater the investment, the greater the rewards.

— David A. Troman

Language in Writing: Barbed Wire or Enchanting Portals?

EZRA POUND (1885 – 1972), THE AMERICAN POET AND CRITIC MAKES THIS OBSERVATION about the language used by fellow American poet, Walt Whitman:

You can learn more of nineteenth century America from Whitman than any other writers . . . The only way to enjoy Whitman thoroughly is to concentrate on his fundamental meaning. If you insist, however, on dissecting his language you will probably find that is wrong NOT because he broke all of what were considered in his day ‘the rules’ but because he is spasmodically conforming to this, that or the other; sporadically dragging in a bit of ‘regular’ metre, using a bit of literary language and putting his adjectives where, in the spoken tongue, they are not. His real writing occurs when he sets free of all this barbed wire.

Literature, both poetry and prose, says Pound, ‘is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’. He goes on to argue that since literature/writing ‘does not exist in a vacuum’ the main social function and ability of a writer should be to use language to convey meaning.

Then we have Joyce, for whom the word/language is the reality. Frank Budgen, Joyce’s biographer and admirer, likened Joyce’s works – like Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses – to locked doors for which keys had to be made to fit. Here’s an extract from Finnegan’s Wake:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs . . .

The opening line of this extract is linked to the end of the novel, which links the book to theories of the cyclical nature of the Universe and Time. This is suggested at in the word vicus, which is a pun on the name of Vico, the Neapolitan theorist of the cyclical nature of culture. The term commodius is a pun on the last Roman Emperor, Commodus.

This reference:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s . . .

is, again, multi-layered in that it is the name of a Dublin pub as well as a pun on the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.

Thus, Joyce created an inimitable use of language and married sound and meaning, which have been replicated by other Irish greats like Heaney, but Joyce’s unique mastery of language has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. The extract quoted here is a gripping example of his unique style and opens up the almost infinite possibilities of how language can be played around with and used beyond the literal meaning. He is the master of allusions, who turned the joke form of punning into a major literary tool.
Where in relation to Pound’s idea about meaning and language, and Joyce’s privileging of language over meaning, does your own use of language fit?

Do you agree with Pound’s critique that embellishment of language often obscures meaning?

Do you know or read any particular writer/poet whose use of language is inspirational for you?

How successful do you think your use of language is in getting across what you want to express?

— Golden Langur

What’s in a Name? The Importance of Titles


A. L. Kennedy, the judge of 2011 Bridport Short Story and Flash Fiction Prize, commented:

A number of writers seemed to have real difficulty finding a title that would help them . . .

She went on to say that the successful entries were the ones that work from ‘title to final’ in establishing an ‘unquestionable voice’.

Her stance is quite representative of the advice that editors routinely give writers. The title of a story or book is the first contact that a potential reader and editor make with your work. It represents your work to the world. If the title does not make the intended impact, it is unlikely that the reader or the editor will continue to read.

Some simple dos
A title must be instantly eye-catching
Easy to remember
Appropriate to the content of the book/story

A random selection of published works shows a wide variety of titles. These range from a single word or name:

Saturday – Ian McEwan

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk

Shantaram – Gregory David Smith

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Ulysses – James Joyce

to the enigmatic, and sometimes with metaphysical allusions:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner – Alan Sillitoe

to the seemingly mundane:

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry

to dramatic, eye-catching titles:

Sexing The Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

Talking To The Dead – Helen Dunmore

Catcher In The Rye – J. D. Salinger

Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

(taken from John Donne’s poem:
‘. . . Ask not for whom the bell tolls –
It tolls for thee’)

to the bizarre:

The Short History Of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycha

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle

The Windup Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

to intriguing ones:

Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes

The Speckled People – Hugo Hamilton

An Equal Music – Vikram Seth

The Enigma Of Arrival – V. S. Naipaul

In the highly competitive world of writing and publishing, it is worthwhile giving due care and attention to picking titles that will imbue your work with an almost talismanic potency.
Does the title of a work affect your choice of reading?

How do you choose titles for your own work?

Do you know of any striking titles that you might like to share here?

— Golden Langur

In Santiago de Paula

In Santiago de Paula we walk up to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s old home, now a museum. A leafy driveway leads to the place, which is surrounded by gardens. It is pretty much as he left it in 1960, when he left for Spain and then the USA. He lived here for twenty years. Juan, our Cuban host, tells us that the Hemingway family have struck a deal with the Cuban government to preserve the house and its effects as a perpetual museum to the writer. It is in the process of restoration as we visit and half of it is closed. Juan hails a man in overalls and asks him when the restoration will be completed. The man shrugs his shoulders. This is Cuba. Juan points to the porch.

‘He had a canon there,’ he tells us. ‘He would fire it when his friends would visit.’

We look in a window and see the bowed desk where Hemingway would write, and we see bookshelves, walls lined with books, and his Royal typewriter.

We go up the four-story tower where Mary Welsh Hemingway had intended he should write. He didn’t like it, however; he used it to store his fishing gear and to go up to look out across the sea, to determine the chances of a day’s fishing for marlin from the Pilar, his yacht, with his old friend the skipper of the Pilar, Gregorio Fuentes. The latter died, Juan tells us, in 2002, at the great age of a hundred and four.

Today there are Cuban women at the top of the tower. They want to change dollars for convertible pesos.

Connected to the main house are guest rooms and, walking past the swimming pool, where – Juan tells us – Ava Gardner once swam naked, the Pilar is preserved. One walks around a platform surrounding the boat. I see Hemingway’s chair for fishing. I see the cabin. I hear the sound of laughter and conversation between Hemingway and Gregorio Fuentes echoing ghostly from the deck as the Pilar cuts though the turquoise sea. Gone now. An instant. I am moved.

In the gardens of the house are the graves of Hemingway’s dogs. As we walk away from the house, we ask Juan how he knows Ava Gardner swam naked in the pool.

‘Hemingway didn’t tell it,’ Juan says. ‘ There were staff in the place. The help. They told it.’

Juan tells us how Hemingway would drink in the bars of Havana and bring the drunks and whores he met there back to the house, to the discomfort of his wives. He lived there first with Martha Gellhorn and later, Mary Welsh.

‘He had great energy,’ Juan tells us. ‘Ahhh . . . when he was a child, his mother would dress him in girl’s clothing, something he resented all his life. Maybe that is why he needed to project a macho image. This is just my opinion.’

We travel on to Cojimar, where we eat lunch at the La Terraza restaurant: another Hemingway haunt. Cojimar is where Gregorio Fuentes lived and worked and, until 2002, regaled tourists with anecdotes of the Hemingway years.

A sea breeze blows through an open window and we eat fish and drink beer.

I go outside and stand in bright sunlight and roll a cigarette. Three Cubans, one with a bicycle, stand in the wind conversing. They soon notice me. One comes over. He wants to sell me cigars. I decline.

We walk by the sea, passing the Spanish fortress – now occupied by the military – and we look at and photograph the bust of Hemingway, made of bronze from propellers donated by local fishermen. We stroll along the shore. Turkey buzzards circle over the sea, which glitters in strong sunlight, and Cuban children hold their hands out for pesos.

— R. L. Tilley

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