Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Close-Read: The First 48 Words of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I so enjoyed participating in last month’s 1book140 read-a-long of The Blind Assassin that  I am coming back for July’s pick, Kafka on the Shore. Last time, I wrote about just the first sentence of The Blind Assassin. This time, I managed to make it through the first 48 words. Disclosure: I have read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but no other Murakami. Also, I have only read the first 48 words, so any correct guesses or horrible misses here should be judged accordingly.

Here’s what I saw.

1.  The preface’s title, “The Boy Named Crow,” is deceptively simple. On its surface, this is a basic bit of information: this section is about a boy whose name is Crow. If our eye catches anything, it’s the unusual name “Crow,” but I think the telling part is the more subtle, “named.” We might think that Crow is some kind of nickname, but the “named” indicates that it is quite intentional—this is not an acquired name, it is an original. Now who did the naming is less clear; conventional reading would suggest that this was his given name, but there is also the possibility that Crow gave himself this name. (I think the rest of the first paragraph supports this theory, but more on that in a moment.)

Anyway, the point here is that someone wanted this kid to have a weird name. If it was his parents, then he is that kid with parents who wanted him to have a weird name. If he named himself Crow, then he is the kid that gave himself a weird name. Either of these kids is to be monitored closely.

2. We get dropped right into the middle of a conversation here. The opening question, “So you’re all set for money, then?” tells us that even if this is the first sentence uttered in this particular encounter, it is part of a larger discussion/relationship (the “so” and “then” connect the question backward and forward). (Lit nerd note: the literary technique of starting the story right in the middle of the action is called in media res, and goes back at least to The Iliad when Apollo gets pissed off because Agamemnon absconded with one of his priestesses. The question there might well have been “So you think you are going to make off with one my vestal virgins, then?”)

As far as the content of the question, it seems like something out of noir. The “you’re all set for money” construction is obtuse to the point of performance: Crow seems like he is intentionally being theatrical, milking the moment for all of its intrigue. (Going back to the name; the exaggerated theatricality leads me to think that Crow bestowed this name on himself. It’s exactly the kind of trying-so-hard-to-be-cool name-that –it-ends-up-being-uncool moniker that a kid like this might choose). Our protagonist returns this wizened, elliptical tone with a simple nod. No language, no inflection, no extra information or social grace offered. There’s almost an exaggerated simplicity to nodding in response to a question like this. (When is the last time you nodded, and only nodded, in response to a question? I can’t think of a time.)

3. Lest you think I am driving off a cliff here with this focus on performance, the bulk of the first paragraph shows exactly how much performance, and perception of performance, is going on. Crow’s voice mimics casualness and indifference, but the protagonist sees through it. He knows that Crow is trying to convey precisely the opposite of what he is: alert, interested, and calculating. What we don’t know is if Crow knows that the protagonist knows this. My inclination is that a kid who named himself Crow and is in the middle of some kind of hi-jinks (and it does seem like they are up to no good) and is doing his best Rick from Casablanca impersonation probably thinks he is pulling one over on whomever he is talking to. But our protagonist is not deceived.

4. This failed deception puts the power back into the hands of the protagonist. Not only does he know what Crow is all about, his knowledge seems undetected. He is playing along, but not being played. His simple nod suggests that he at least suspects that withholding information is the right way to deal with a squirrely, posturing figure like Crow. Murakami is crafty here: though the preface is nominally about Crow, the person we learn the most about, and are most interested in, is the protagonist.

5. Who doesn’t love the intimation of a heist? To be “all set” for money suggests that it has a particular purpose. What is it? And why/how does Crow know about it? Are they in this together? Who is setting up whom?  Have to admit, I am hooked already.

6. To use the same angle as last time, what might this opening tell us to watch out for in the rest of the novel? For one, there is an appropriation and re-deployment of genre here, particularly crime/noir. That it has been transplanted into the world of adolescence is telling, but it’s too soon to say more about what Murakami might be up to with this.

Second, performance will be key: characters play-acting, characters observing, characters observing being observed. Since we are getting a close-third person point of view, much of the book is likely to be  our protagonist navigating the intricate pathways of social performance. This is theme might connect Kafka on the Shore to the coming-of-age genre, which focuses on a character’s realization of the verisimilitude of all things (think Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, The Bell Jar, and on and on).

Third, be careful. Murakami is crafting a protagonist we are inclined to identify with (who doesn’t want to identify themselves with the character who sees through the world’s sleight of hand?). Don’t be confident that you know what the real score is---if this opening tells us anything, it’s that we need to keep our eyes up and our heads down.


  1. Laurie @ What She ReadJuly 6, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    Ah, thank you for this verbal cuppa joe on a sunny summer morning; I'm just the sort of literary geek who appreciates a close read.

    One question:  What's the role of translation when we parse a Japanese writer's prose so closely?  Can we be sure that Murakami intended all these subtleties?  Yes, we must hope that his editors have hired the most skillful of translators, and that Murakami himself reviewed and approved the text, but I always wonder...

  2. Good 48 words. I think you will find that Kafka is czech for wolf; so you have two animals wolf v crow. One encompasses the immediate surroundings; the other flies above and catches the macro viewpoint. Interesting?

  3. Translation is indeed a bothersome obstacle in doing close-reading. For
    Murakami, this is less of an issue because of his English language ability
    (he has translated major American writers from Fitzgerald to Carver into
    Japanese). Whatever the editorial process, I am relatively confident that
    Murakami's style is well-preserved.

  4. Very interesting indeed. I hadn't thought to add the Kafka element to this,
    but well-observed. Going to keep this in mind going forward.

  5. Guess I've got to show that wolf the door. Crow= crow. Still like my version though.

  6. Alexandra JacunskiJuly 9, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    My two cents: 
    $0.01 the first - I missed your talking(/writing) about literature very much. I'm glad I found your blog.
    $0.01 the second - for what it's worth, Kafka on the Shore is my favourite of the Murakami works I've read (Wind-Up being second, and I didn't like Sputnik Sweetheart... I think I'm missing one more *scratches jet-lagged head*), so you should read the whole thing and let me know what you think!