Illustration by Brooks Salzwedel“Everything’s a metaphor,” the urbane, transgendered Oshima tells the titular Kafka in the ambitious, meditative Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami’s latest novel. Everything is, in worlds of Murakami’s making — his novels are rife with extended metaphors, expressed through kinetic, surreal stories, and populated with wildly eccentric characters: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World explored the limits of the mind, using as analogues the dualities of man and shadow, dreams and reality; The Wind-up Bird Chronicle ­propelled its archetypal Murakamian Everyman into the underworlds of Tokyo as he navigated the sinister underside of human nature; and A Wild Sheep Chase’s hero stumbled onto existential truths via, well, a wild sheep chase. Kafka on the Shore is, then, an examination of memory and fate. Paralleling the journeys of two vastly disparate characters, the story unfolds with 15-year-old Kafka Tamura running away from home on a twofold, contradictory quest: to escape an oedipal curse yet, ironically, also to seek out the mother who abandoned him years ago. Told in alternating chapters are the travels of mentally impaired, 60-year-old Nakata, which begin with the old man’s search for missing neighborhood cats. Nakata is perhaps Murakami’s most heartbreakingly pathetic creation — as a bright 9-year-old student, he suffered a mysterious accident on a school excursion and lost not only his memories, but also his capacity for understanding the concept of memory — or indeed any abstract idea at all (“The only thing I understand is the present,” he says). Nakata is made even more tragic by the fact that he is blithely incognizant of his own shortchanged existence — content by his own standards, but pitiable by ours. Driven by fate, Kafka and Nakata hurtle toward a common destination, along the way encountering the author’s usual spate of peculiar personalities — this is Murakami, after all — ranging from the ethereal (middle-aged Miss Saeki, haunted by a love lost) to the offbeat (hermaphroditic hemophiliac Oshima, who takes Kafka under his/her wing) to the truly bizarre (a cat-killer calling himself Johnnie Walker and an omniscient pimp dressed as Colonel Sanders). The boundaries of time and memory dissolve when Kafka comes face to face with Miss Saeki’s past and is drawn into that bygone world, and ultimately must choose between remaining in the present or existing in a kind of living memory. As such, Kafka on the Shore defies time and linearity — fragments of the past run concurrently with the present — which in less imaginative hands could be hopelessly confusing. But Murakami revels in playing with convention; he embraces the fantastical and treats it with utter gravity, resulting in a hyperreality whereby anything can happen. Kafka and Nakata never physically meet — their simultaneous odysseys operate on separate planes, but as both are inextricably linked to the memories and destinies of the other, their paths metaphysically converge at a single but crucial juncture: The actions of one allow for the dreams of the other to come to life. The absurdities in Kafka, in their stark contrast to the characters’ central human elements, distill and draw out the emotion and pathos. Time blurs, identities are fractured and reconstructed, cats talk, fish fall from the sky — and what survives is the metaphor. KAFKA ON THE SHORE | By HARUKI MURAKAMI | Knopf | 448 pages | $26, hardcover

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