May 3, 2023

In Murakami’s Library: Entrance Stones and Tombstones

By Stuart Mitchner

The human face is a terrible place,
Choose your own examples….

—Keith Reid, from “Your Own Choice”

I picked up Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore at the Princeton Public Library after dropping off his novel Norwegian Wood. Around 30 pages into Kafka, the 15-year-old runaway who chooses to call himself Kafka Tamura talks about how he’s lived in libraries ever since he was a kid: “Think about it — a little kid who doesn’t want to go home doesn’t have many places he can go. Coffee shops and movie theaters are off-limits. That leaves only libraries, and they’re perfect — no entrance fee, nobody getting all hot and bothered if a kid comes in. You just sit down and read whatever you want.” Eventually  he moves on from children’s books to the general stacks. And when he needs a break from reading, he goes to the library collection of CDs which is how he got to know about “Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.”

Sounds like a typically welcoming library, not unlike Princeton’s “community living room,” just as Tamura sounds like an interesting kid who might well grow up to be Haruki Murakami — except maybe for the name he’s chosen to go by when he’s on the road. The obvious assumption is that he’s named himself after the novelist Franz Kafka, which immediately puts a somewhat surreal spin on his typical-kidness. Only when the novel is moving toward one of its variety of endings does he tell Miss Saeki, the beautiful 50-something head librarian at the Komora Memorial Library in Takamatsu, that he gave himself the name because “kafka” means “crow” in Czech, and his alter ego is a boy named Crow. In fact, the title of the first chapter is “A Boy Named Crow.”

At this point, I should admit that my wife loved — I mean really loved — Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Until, that is, an ending she thinks he couldn’t find his way out of, trapped in the wonderland of his creation. In Patti Smith’s memoir M Train, she’s so enthralled by the book that she doesn’t wish to “exit its atmosphere.” Among features she mentions is the search for a lost cat, and as readers like my wife and I who both love M Train know, Smith ends up searching for her copy of Murakami’s book.

Reid Kafka Murakami

When I began reading Kafka on the Shore I had no wish to exit the atmosphere of Procol Harum’s music and Franz Kafka’s Diaries. And having been focused on the Murakami-like lyrics of Keith Reid ever since Reid’s death at 76 on March 23, I’ve convinced myself that he and Murakami met up at least once to talk about words and music, perhaps during Procol Harum’s 1972 tour of Japan when Murakami was running a jazz club in Tokyo. Or else in New York when Reid was living there in the 1990s and Murakami was teaching at Princeton. There’s even a remote chance they got together when Procol Harum toured Japan with pop star Yumi Matsutoya in 2012. That’s when they might have discussed Kafka On the Shore and Murakami’s use of Kafka’s name not only for the book but for a painting and a song with strange, Reid-like lyrics.

In Murakami’s Library

Murakami’s teenage Kafka finds sanctuary in the Komora Memorial Library in Takamatsu, where he is befriended by Oshima, the most personable of transgender librarians. On the wall of Kafka’s room in a closed-to-the-public area is the painting that inspired “Kafka on the Shore,” the song composed, sung and recorded in her teens by the head librarian Miss Saeki. When Kafka hears the song, which was a hit in its time, he wonders how a record with such “abstract and surreal lyrics” (“the drowning girl’s fingers search for the entrance stone”) could sell over a million copies. Meanwhile I’m thinking of Keith Reid’s surreal lyrics, most famously “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which sold 10 million records for Procol Harum.

A Tombstone Connection

There’s little doubt of course that Murakami read deeply in Kafka. The same could be said for Keith Reid, given his background, a Jewish father who was a lawyer in Vienna, arrested during Kristallnacht and interned in Dachau, from which he fled to England. The paternal grandparents Reid never knew were Holocaust victims, which he says is why the tone of his work is “very dark.”

The first of a lifetime of songs Reid wrote for Procol Harum, “Something Following Me” begins when the singer idly kicks a pebble, hears a “weird noise,” looks down, and sees “my own tombstone.” He goes into a shop, buys a loaf of bread, bites into it (“thought I’d bust my head”), runs to the dentist, and finds that the lump in his mouth is “my own tombstone.” So he ducks into a movie, gets the only empty seat, tries to stretch out, something’s blocking his feet, the lights come up, and he sees “a slab of engraved marble, just staring up at me.” Like the verses that precede it, the last one ends, “Imagine my surprise, I thought I’d left it at home, there’s no doubt I’m sitting on my own tombstone.”

Now imagine my surprise when I open my brand-new paperback copy of Kafka’s Diaries to one of the first entries, December 15, 1910: “It is as if I were made of stone, as if I were my own  tombstone, there is no loophole for doubt or for faith, for love or repugnance, for courage or anxiety in particular or in general, only a vague hope lives on, but no better than the inscriptions on tombstones.”

Kafka’s diaries have gone through 25 printings since 1949 (the year Murakami was born) and were easily available in English bookstores when Reid was first writing lyrics in the late sixties. Whatever you think of the tombstone coincidence, it shows how Kafka’s private thoughts — made public thanks to his dear friend Max Brod — might have inspired a Jewish songwriter and a Japanese novelist. As for the references to doubt and faith, love and repugnance, courage and anxiety, you don’t have to read far in Kafka on the Shore to know that Murakami would be struck by the tombstone passage. In fact, you can find anything you wish to imagine in Murakami’s library, and  if you’re Kafka Tamura you can even sleep with the head librarian, who may also be your mother. It’s all in play in a novel in which Colonel Sanders is a pimp with divine powers who knows where to find the entrance stone that opens the way to the novel’s essence — and must be put back in place or else bring forth horror and confusion on a scale that would make Pandora’s Box look like a Disney cartoon.

A Great Creation

Think on libraries long enough, and you’ll land in the “Library of Babel” among the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. There are times when it’s possible to imagine Kafka on the Shore as a vast library Murakami is building, each chapter a different gallery similar to the “interminably visible” galleries in Borges, where a spiral staircase “plunges down into the abyss and rises up to the heights.” Squeamish readers would be advised to avoid the deepest abyss in Murakami’s library, the gallery containing Chapter 16, except there’s no avoiding the murderous act that mobilizes the book’s greatest creation, the old sage Nakata who converses with cats he finds and rescues but who can’t read or write and has no memory (the victim of a freak wartime event that left him in a prolonged coma). Nakata is like Murakami’s genius come to life on a quest for the entrance stone.

Over and over on his travels through the narrative, Nakata, who usually refers to himself in the third person, admits how dumb Nakata is, how stupid. Even so, he has a life-changing impact on Hoshino, the truck driver who gives him a lift and joins him in the quest for the entrance stone. If you find Murakami’s library a bit stuffy or confining at times, Hoshino is a charming alternative to Kafka’s mystical Oedipal entanglements. Hoshino is never without his Chunichi Dragons baseball cap, a reminder that Murakami was moved to become a writer by the live, in-the-moment crack of a bat striking a ball. When Nakata says he is as empty as a library without books, Hoshino tells him “we’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think?…. Still, you know, interesting things happen in life — like with us now.” Things like Hoshino’s discovery of Beethoven and the Archduke Trio. When he and Nakata inevitably end up in Miss Saeki’s library, Hoshino reads a biography of Beethoven while Nakata and the lovely head librarian have a fated rendezvous that takes the novel in the direction of its denouement. No need for a spoiler alert, but for me the best of all possible endings is Hoshino’s conversation with the black cat who tells him exactly what he must do to put the entrance stone back where it belongs.

A Place for Brahms

I’m saving a gallery in Murakami’s library for Brahms, whose 190th birthday is next Sunday, May 7. He’s definitely in the vicinity when Kafka and Oshima are listening to Schubert’s Sonata in D Major. As someone who drives around listening to Brahms and Procol Harum, I love it that Schubert enters the novel on the CD player in Oshima’s green Miata. The reason Oshima prefers to drive with the volume all the way up when this particular Schubert sonata is on is that “playing it is one of the hardest things in the world,” because “it’s imperfect…. As Schumann pointed out, it’s too long and too pastoral.” Play it as written “and it’s just some dusty antique.” So every pianist has to add “something extra.” Thus a “dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert.” Driving to an “utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece,” you might want to close your eyes and “die right then and there.” Listening to the D Major, Oshima can feel “the limits of what humans are capable of — that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.”

So who expects a perfect ending? If you love the book, that’s enough to send you in search of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And if you’re looking to end a column, and if you love Procol Harum and Keith Reid’s lyrics, just listen to “Your Own Choice” and “Draw your own conclusions.”