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. more