Archive for November, 2008

Kafka on the shore II

November 16, 2008

Nakata was one of the five children evacuated to our town, and of the five he was the brightest and had the best grades. He had very pleasant features and always dressed well. He was a gentle boy and never butted in where he didn’t belong. Never one class did he volunteer to answer, but when I call on him, he would always give the correct response, and when I asked his opinion he would give a logical reply. He caught up right away, no matter what the subject. Every class has a student like that, one who will study what he needs to without supervision, who you know will one day go to a top university and get an excellent job. A child who is innately capable.

As his teacher, though, there were a couple of things about him that bothered me. Every so often I felt a sense of resignation in him. Even when he did well on difficult assignments, he never seemed happy. He never struggled to succeed, never seems to experience the pain of trial and error. He never sighed or cracked a smile. It was as if these things he had to get through, so he just did it. He efficiently handled whatever came on his way – like a factory worker, screwdriver in hand, working on a conveyor belt, tightening a screw on each part that comes down the line.

I never met his parents, so I can’t be certain, but there had to be a problem at home. I’d meet a number of cases like this. Adults are forever raising the bar on clever children, precisely because they are able to handle it. The children get overwhelms by the tasks they are set and gradually lose the sort of openness and sense of accomplishment that they naturally have. When they are treated like that, children start to crawl inside a shell and keep everything inside. It takes a long time and effort to get them open up again. Kid’s harts are malleable, but once they gel it’s hard to get them back the way they were. Next to impossible in most cases. But maybe I shouldn’t be giving my opinion on the matter – this is after all you area of expertise.

I also sensed a hint of violence in the boy’s background. Sometimes there would be a flash of fear in his eyes that seemed an instinctive reaction to long term exposure to violence. What level of violence this was, I had no way of knowing. Nakata was a very self-disciplined child and good at hiding his fear. But there would be the occasional involuntary flinch, ever so slight, that he couldn’t cover up. I knew that something violent had taken place in his home. When you spend a lot of time with children, you pick up on this things.


Miss Saeki looks at me for a while, and the smile fades away. “Picture a bird perched on a thin branch” she says. “The branch sways in the wind, and each time this happens the bird’s field of vision shifts. You know what I mean?

I nod.

“When this happens, how do you think the bird adjusts?”

I shake my head. “I don’t know”

“It bobs it head up and down, making up for the sways of the branch. Take a good look at birds next time it’s windy. I spend a lot of time looking out of that window. Don’t you think that kind of life would be exhausting? Always shifting your head every time the branch you are in sways?”

“I do”

“Birds are used to it. It comes naturally to them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it. So it’s not as tiring as we imagine. But I am a human being, not a bird, so sometimes it does get tiring.


“You still don’t get it, do you? We are talking about a revelation here,” Colonel Sanders says, clicking his tongue. “A revelation leaps over the borders of the everyday. A life without revelation is not life at all. What you need to do is move from reason that observes to reason that acts. That’s what’s critical. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”


“I imagine you want to become stronger”

“You have to be strong to survive. Especially in my case”

“Because you are all alone”

“Nobody is going to help me. Al least no one has until now. So I have to make it on my own. I have to get stronger”

“There must be a limit to that kind of lifestyle, though” she says. “You can’t use that strength as a protective wall around you. There’s always going to be something stronger that can overcome your fortress. At least in theory.”

“Strength itself becomes your mortality”

Miss Saeki smiles. “You catch on quickly”

“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things – unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings”

“That must be the most difficult strength of all to make your own.”

“I know…”


“Do you know where the idea of a labyrinth first came from?”

I shake my head.

“It was the ancient Mesopotamians. They pulled out animal intestines – sometimes human intestine, I expect – and use the shape to predict the future. They admired the complex shape of intestines. So the prototype of labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And correlates to the labyrinth outside.”

“Another metaphor” I say.

“That’s right. A reciprocal metaphor. Things outside you are projections of what’s inside you, and what’s inside you is a projection of what’s outside. So when you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time you are stepping into the labyrinth inside. Most definitely a risky business.”


“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in you hart. That’s what being tough is all about”

Kafka on the shore – Haruki Murakami