Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

MurakamiAttention literati! Put down whatever else you’re reading. A new Murakami novel has arrived — and there’s sufficient reason why more than 1 million copies vanished from bookstores throughout Japan the day it went on sale last year.

For the uninitiated, Haruki Murakami‘s novels are a strange brew of contrasts — the mystical and the mundane, the unpredictable and the foretold, the metaphorical and the literal, rough sex and the purest love, cripplingly bored characters and possessed alter egos, epistemology, pop-culture references, dreamscapes — all mashed together into moody, contemplative stories set alight by magic. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — his 14th — is no different.

Unlike his previous book, 1Q84 — a 925-page opus that baffled many U.S. critics with its fractured structure straddling multiple worlds and featuring elements of traditional Japanese mythology transformed into fantastical narratives of his own design — Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is much more straightforward in scope. Sharing many parallels with his novel Norwegian Wood and the more grounded sections of Sputnik Sweetheart, this latest book deals with navigating love, slogging through loss, and how time shapes identity and warps perspective as it marches ceaselessly on.

Like many of Murakami’s protagonists, 36-year-old Tsukuru is an unassuming, subdued sort, preferring solitude to companionship and introspection to mindless banter. An expert in train station construction, he lives in Tokyo and spends most days following a set routine either at the office, in his sparsely decorated apartment, or seated on a bench in a railroad terminal, watching the world bustle by.

But Tsukuru didn’t always keep life at an arm’s length. While in high school, he was happily cocooned in a vibrant, womb-like crew of five — two other boys and two girls — whose last names all contained a color. There was Aka (red pine), the brain; Ao (blue sea), the outgoing jock; Shiro (white root), the shy beauty; and Kuro (black field), the clever humorist. Only Tsukuru’s surname, Tazaki, was colorless; instead, it meant “to make or build” (hence, the book’s title). Given his decision to leave the group’s small town of Nagoya to continue his engineering education in Tokyo, Tsukuru was content with being the odd man out — until, that is, his friends promptly ejected him from their collective embrace during his second year of university without so much as an explanation.

“Think about it and you’ll figure it out,” they told him. And then? Silence.

From that point forward, Tsukuru courted death. Suicide “would have been easier than swallowing down a slick, raw egg,” though he never mustered up enough energy to carry out a plan. “All around him, for as far as he could see, lay a rough land strewn with rocks, with not a drop of water, nor a blade of grass. Colorless, with no light to speak of. No sun, no moon or stars. No sense of direction, either. At a set time, a mysterious twilight and a bottomless darkness merely exchanged places.” Tsukuru grew so emaciated, despondent, and insecure that he barely recognized himself.

It was a dream (a common harbinger of change in Murakami’s books) that snapped Tsukuru out of his stupor. Literally overnight, he became a new person. Like Toru Okada, the once-listless protagonist and part-time well dweller in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Tsukuru took up swimming laps again. He made a new friend, Haida, with whom he whiled away evenings listening to records and discussing (among other weighty matters) the significance of “Années de Pèlerinage” (fittingly: “Years of Pilgrimage”), a trio of suites for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He even dated a few women. It was a comfortable albeit simple existence. Still, Tsukuru was haunted by the palpable loss of his high school friends. Why did they abandon him? Was he that inconsequential?

Colorless Tsukuru grows exponentially more interesting (and, arguably, simultaneously commonplace) as it shifts gears from describing Tsukuru’s background to showing the effects his past has had on his present. At 36, he’s still fretting over what could’ve gotten in the way of his friendships, and in a decision spurred on by a current girlfriend, he’s inspired to do something maybe we’ve all fantasized about doing — he casts off on a mission to right his wrongs, come what may. Find out what really happened. Get closure.

But lest you think Murakami has descended into maudlin “Broken Flowers” territory, delivering a snooze-worthy laundry list of his characters’ regrets and disappointments or throwing their foolhardy attempts at rekindling old flames on display for the latter half of the book, Tsukuru’s jaunt down memory lane does warrant merit — for Tsukuru and for us. What he discovers as he revisits his old chums (spoilers aside) is something quite surprising and, more importantly, universal. It touches on the inevitable question: “Does anybody know who they [sic] are at any given point?” Do we, indeed.

To be sure, the minimalist, largely reality-based Colorless Tsukuru contains none of the mind-bending plot tunnels of 1Q84, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, or the bizarre surrealist antics Murakami is gleefully famous for. (Torrents of sardines, leeches, and mackerel raining down from the sky in Kafka on the Shore, anyone?) Cats don’t seem to be so much on the prowl either and the sex scenes, while present, do feel a little more tame. But conflicted souls, existential musings, and feel-good (or not-so-good) morals that pick away at the scab of human frailty? To be sure, those elements are there and just as resonant.

At the end of this understated but hugely contemplative novel, we are left with a feeling sought after and coveted in contemporary literature — fulfillment. No, ends aren’t nicely tied up. In fact, answers are pointedly not given. In their place is a rare hint of a concept we could all do well to remember as we age. As Tsukuru puts it: “We each have our paths to follow, in our places. There’s no going back.” Specific yet ambiguous. Bittersweet yet hopeful. Quite telling. Definitely poetic. Pure Murakami.

Originally ran in The Oregonian (August 13, 2014)

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