Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami
Harvill Secker (12 August 2014)
298 Pages
ISBN-10: 1846558336
Review by Chris Corker

It has been nearly three years since Murakami’s last book 1Q84 was released in English. Personally I found 1Q84 disappointing after the hype, the characters unrelatable and the majority of their motives confused and unbelievable. Murakami’s new release Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, another coming-of-age or ‘Bildunsroman‘ story, stands at a manageable 298 pages compared with the daunting 928 of its predecessor, and reads more like a fleshed-out short story than a true novel. This, however, does not detract from the books appeal, instead giving the work a refreshing simplicity and leanness that Murakami hasn’t adopted since his early works such as Wild Sheep chase and Sputnik Sweetheart, venturing away from the (pleasantly) complex narratives of Kafka on the Shore and Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Indeed, I was reminded even more so of his first two works, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, which are yet to be made widely available in the UK. As with these two novellas, the characters in Tsukuru float, dream-like, in and out of scene, making no apparent difference to the protagonist.

Tsukuru Tazaki , in many ways, is the antithesis of the archetypal Murakami protagonist (Murakami is certainly of the ‘write what you know’ breed of novelists), having no real interest in drinking, fine food, or jazz – the general bread and butter of Murakami’s focal characters. This is because the Tsukuru we are presented with at the beginning of the book –  a student, living away from home in Tokyo – is depressed, feeling disconnected and – he admits candidly – suicidal.

‘[…] Tsukuru had fallen into the bowels of death, on untold day after another, lost in a dark stagnant void.’

Murakami’s characters are typically strong and resilient in the face of suffering, both real and surreal, so readers may be surprised to see one of his creations so downtrodden, and will doubtless infer something crushingly traumatic in his past. And they would be right. Tsukuru’s four closest friends from childhood have told him – without giving a reason – that they no longer want to see him.

The four friends each have a colour in their name: Aka (Red), Ao (Blue), Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). These colours become their nicknames and Tsukuru refers to them in this way throughout the book; but more than that these colours come to represent Tsukuru’s lack of connection to any of them: ‘How great it would be, he often, thought, if I had a color in my name too. Then everything would be perfect.’ Tsukuru, in Japanese, is simply the verb ‘to make’. In his book The Art of Fiction, David Lodge states that: ‘In a novel names are never neutral. They always signify, even if it is only ordinariness.’ Ironically, the four friends, as Tsukuru describes them, are merely transparent archetypes or ciphers, the inhabitants of the Mystery Machine, minus the dog; the characters really are that stereotypical. We have the jock; the shy nerd; the sarcastic, smart but plain girl; and the beautiful but mentally frail porcelain doll. But in spite (or perhaps because) of their prefabricated roles, the characters find happiness as a complete unit. Tsukuru, on the other hand, who cannot be fit snugly into any pre-ordained category, sees his lack of definable character – lack of colour – as a fundamental flaw that has ruined this relationship, and will continue to ruin any future relationships he has. This causes him intense anxiety, only exacerbated as those important to him, including a very close male friend, Haida (Grey), for whom Tsukuru may have had intimate feelings, leave him. He begins to see himself as an ’empty container’ who others can stand for a while, but not long-term. This lack of connection that Tsukuru feels is referred to often in the book, and The Doors of Perception , in which Huxley calls human beings ‘Island universes’ is also referenced. Tsukuru cannot know why his friends hate him – he is not privy to that information, he cannot share their mind – and it is this that nearly kills him.

It is later in Tsukuru’s life (he is in his mid-thirties), when he feels that he has moved beyond, if not recovered from, the pain of his friends abandonment, that he meets Sara. Tsukuru feels differently about Sara than he has any woman so far; he begins to fall in love. After telling Sara the story of his friends’ abandonment of him, however, she seems to confirm his suspicions that there is something wrong with him, telling him that he doesn’t seem ‘all there’ when they make love. She advises him to go and find his friends – to whom he hasn’t spoken a word since the day they rejected him – and ask for an explanation. This is where Tsukuru’s pilgrimage begins, leading him back to his hometown of Nagoya, all the way to Finland, and to a shattering revelation.

The journey that follows does have echoes of Murakami’s other books: there are phallocentric elements and a threesome reminiscent of Hear the Wind Sing; there are suggestions of a darker side to every character, not necessarily controlled by the conscious mind as in Kafka on the Shore and many others; there is a mental breakdown, similar to that in Norwegian Wood; and a nostalgic yearning for the past, combined with the unrequited love that has become a Murakami staple. While the characters in the novel are interesting in their transformation, none of them is as intriguing as Gotanda, Mimi or The Sheep Man in Dance, Dance, Dance and Wild Sheep Chase, both of which have strong resemblances to Colorless Tsuru Tazaki in terms of theme and style. Also, at times the eroticism feels a little clunky. Murakami won a nomination for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2011 and passages like: ‘These insistent caresses continued until Tsukuru was inside the vagina of one of the girls,’ are unlikely to mend his reputation on that front. On the whole, I found the translation crisp and clear, although a few phrases, and the innumerable split infinitives, felt a little clunky and I was left wondering if a man in his mid-thirties would really say: ‘I am too telling the truth.’

In conclusion, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is an enjoyable book that harks back to Murakami’s earlier years, and Tsukuru is a relatable protagonist who can fit into the system but struggles to truly belong in society. It is a book that begins in an unfamiliar tone but soon employs the familiar Murakami references – Jazz, classical music, food and the Japanese ideal of beauty in mundane tasks – that his faithful readers know so well.

Partway into the book, Tsukuru’s friend Haida muses on the transience of talent:

‘”Talent might be ephemeral,” Haida replied, “and there aren’t many people who can sustain it their whole lives. But talent makes a huge spiritual leap possible. It’s an almost universal, independent phenomenon that transcends the individual.'”

It’s fair to say that Murakami is maintaining his talent as an author, and he may yet grow in popularity. Whether his work will be viewed afterwards as transcending the individual, as it has with so few authors, only time will tell.

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