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Oedipal journey

Richard Eder, the former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

Haruki murakami’s food has been changing and so has his fiction. In his early novels, his Japanese yuppies, smoothly Westernized though bearing the stretch marks of alienation, ate at McDonald’s and drank Scotch. Time and tide proclaim that traditional Japan is dead, and beneath that message, an undertow: So possibly are we.

Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, Santayana wrote. With the broadening and deepening of Murakami’s later work -- “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and the stories of “After the Quake” -- he has been blessed to do so. There’s little that’s traditional on their surfaces, which ricochet from realistic to surreal to garishly expressionist; more and more, his writings have become haunted by a nation’s millennial character and culture.

In “Kafka on the Shore” -- gay and severe, tender and horrifying, with the monstrous confrontations and violent jump-cuts of Kabuki and the introspective tremors of a Salingeresque adolescent -- the characters stop continually for meals. They eat abundantly and in detail: salt fish, rice balls, miso, pickled turnips, noodles by the legion, with the occasional irruption of ham and eggs and a Pepsi. The latter are also a part of the fare so as not to ignore the West but -- literally -- to digest it, to possess it, so it becomes you, not the other way around.

Kafka Tamura, who names himself after the writer whose world he finds as arbitrary and incomprehensible as his own, runs away from his Tokyo home. He is 15; any younger, he says, would be too soon; any older would be too late. He has set off on what, for all its strangeness, is an archetypal coming-of-age quest: Huckleberry Finn fleeing his violent drunken father and discovering himself down the Mississippi.

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Kafka’s raft is tinted the kandy-colored tangerine-flake of Tom Wolfe’s early psychedelic pieces; it is a raft of dreams and nightmares. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” Kafka announces right off, quoting Yeats. Not only are dreams, visions and magical encounters integral to the boy’s stumble toward maturity, but they keep taking over the straight story that provides the smallest and most beleaguered part of the book.

Kafka’s mother left him when he was 4, taking his sister with her. He lives with his father, a world-famous sculptor, who is distant and unloving. In most fiction, these would be psychic wounds worked out in roughly naturalistic fashion; here they come to life like the chess pieces over which Lewis Carroll’s Alice falls asleep.

Instead of the analyst’s couch, Murakami deals with them in the living ferocity of the Sophoclean tragedy from which Freud derived his dead metaphor. Kafka’s Oedipus complex is fought in the jousting pit, where most of the action takes place. He kills his father, has sex with his mother and dreams of raping his sister. Or seems to.

Kafka’s flight south, by bullet train, takes him to Takamatsu, a city on Japan’s Inland Sea. A girl, Sakura, briefly shelters him, comforting him with a sexual caress but nothing more, because in some sense -- literal? metaphorical? mythical? -- she may be his sister.

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He finds work and refuge in a great library run by Saeki, a beautiful middle-aged woman who may be his mother. They make love, eventually. She dies, and Kafka rallies to grow up, after almost yielding to oblivion in a forest populated by all manner of ghosts -- his father as well as two Japanese soldiers from World War II.

It is past time to get back to the food. What has been outlined may seem horrendously overburdened by allegory. The genius (or close to it, perhaps) of Murakami is the earthy and innocent lightness with which he recounts his extravagant myths and monsters. Imagine Parsifal as a full-length cartoon, done not by Disney, God forbid, but by one of the great Czech animators.

A few of the characters are abstract -- Kafka, for that matter -- but others have a lovely humanity that inveigles us into their magicking. Sakura the “sister” is a reassuring voice half-heard through a bad dream. Above all, there is the aged Nakata, a holy innocent who talks to cats, calls down rainstorms of sardines or leeches and searches to recover what he calls his “normality.”

Nakata never does, but as he wanders south he is Kafka’s mystical crossed wire. (Murakami is prone to attaching one character’s story to another, like bathing suits mixed up in a locker room.) It is he, apparently, who kills Kafka’s father, torturer of Nakata’s beloved cats, at the father’s insistence. It is grisly allegory -- the man of power as inveterate evildoer and sick of himself -- but Nakata is most of the time a blithe peripatetic with saintly qualities who makes frequent stops to eat.

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Murakami’s novel, though wearying at times and confusing at others, has the faintly absurd loft of some great festive balloon. He addresses the fantastic and the natural, each with the same mix of gravity and lightness. *


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