Plot: Tsukuru Tazaki is thirty six and leads an almost monastic life, redesigning railroad stations and casually dating travel agent Sara. When she insists he confront the something that seems to be holding back their relationship, Tsukuru is thrown back into the past and to his teenage friendship with four amazing but different schoolmates. Almost twenty years later, Tsukuru must journey home to ask them why they turned their backs on him one summer, and discover what events passed between them to so horribly sever their friendship.
Verdict: A return to form for Murakami, but not without its annoying tics. For fans, this is a novel more in the delicate, emotional style of his Norwegian Wood, rather than the more fantastical explorations Murakami pursues in 1Q84 or A Wild Sheep Chase.
Review: When I first read a Murakami novel, I was enchanted; this was like nothing I had read before and I was spurred on to read more of his work. But like Proust says of young love, eventually the enchantment passes. Reading Murakami’s individual works too close together is like seeing a favourite magician’s trick too many times; eventually the mystery is dispelled, and the previously imperceptible sleight-of-hand becomes apparent. This didn’t deter me from reading each new novel as it came out, but I’ll admit the pleasure had dimmed, culminating in the unfortunate 1Q84, which for me convincingly demonstrated that Murakami is a novelist best taken in small doses with some space in between. In large doses, like 1Q84, it becomes clear that Murakami’s skill doesn’t extend past smaller, lower stakes narratives and his annoying, repetitive tics (more on that in a bit) become overwhelming. Murakami is the Edward Hopper of literature: the best worst writer; if he were any better, he’d cease to be a good writer.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a refreshing return to form. Murakami’s narratives can roughly be separated into one of two formulas; the tale of the hapless thirty-something Japanese male with a loss in his past, who is thrown into the role of amateur gumshoe in an effort to break the dam and move on; and the same but with spirits, mystical sheep, magical cocoons, corrupt public figures, little people, disappearing femme fatales, psychic connections, meaning-laden dreams…
In Colorless Tsukuru Murakami wisely returns to his roots and sticks to the former path, hinting at what forms of connection may lie beyond everyday experience but remaining firmly rooted in the psychological experience of his characters. This makes the novel much closer in spirit to the work that bought him to literary fame, Norwegian Wood; although some critics might uncharitably point out that key features of this novel owe more than just a debt to his narrative there. For example, on being cut off from his friends for five months he ‘lived at death’s door, he set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss’; Sara, his contemporary girlfriend will not sleep with him (a common Murakami problem); another female character has a dark event in her past that anyone who has read another of his novels will immediately guess the nature of; and so on.
To get all of the complaints and reservations out of the way, before moving to deserved praise of this good book, I’ll mention the usual Murakamisms that are once again present here and generally lead the evidence cited against the skill of Murakami’s characterisations. Yes, the characters the narrator admires can all prepare simple food perfectly (for some reason, my biggest personal Murakami annoyance, when it inevitably crops up); yes, the narrator drinks black coffee and Cutty Sark, but only one finger of the latter before going to bed; yes, the usual luxury brands make their appearance here like a Bret Easton Ellis novel; yes, a certain piece of music keeps reoccurring again and again (this time not jazz); yes, descriptions of necks, earlobes, backs (Murakamian sex objects never seem to turn towards their viewer, again strangely like Hopper); yes, the narrator has an intense friendship with a character described as the opposite of him in intellect, skill, etc; yes, the figure of the cult rests in the background of their ‘orderly, harmonious community’; yes, there are doppelgangers, presences in dark rooms, sensitive mystical bodily spots; yes, the protagonist frequently repairs to the nearest public bench to be soothed by the movement of crowds; and so on. But you know what you are getting with Murakami, and while all of these commonplaces may prevent him from ever being a great writer, they can’t change the fact that at bottom he is a very enjoyable and sophisticated (if always in the same manner) writer to read.
Colorless Tsukuru traces the journey of its 36-year-old narrator to come to terms with his past, and in particular the deep friendship he had with four other high school classmates almost twenty years prior. A mysterious, sudden event separated their friendship – one which Tsukuru did not have the strength to inquire into at the time – and he is cast out from the group, who refuse to speak with him. Much later, while working as a designer of railroad stations as his one true passion, casual girlfriend Sara refuses to advance their relationship unless Tsukuru comes to terms with his past. Doing most of the legwork for him, Sara tracks down the four friends and Tsukuru embarks on a journey to speak with them, one by one, about the events that transpired. The stakes of this short novel are clear, and the structure readily apparent – leaving Murakami to do what he does best, and colour in the psychological spaces as his characters move from one point to another. In this case that colouring is doubly figurative, as each of the four friends (two male, two female) are represented by a colour and a key attribute, like the Power Rangers. Only Tsukuru is left colourless, like poor unsettled Tommy Oliver, and his own qualities – those that attract the others in the group to him in the first place – remain opaque to his insecurities. Murakami writes:
There must be something in him, something fundamental, that disenchanted people. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki,” he said aloud. I basically have nothing to offer to others. If you think about it, I don’t even have anything to offer myself.
Mana to the legions of Murakami fans who identify with his downcast protagonists; but a key part of the flatness, simplicity, the two dimensional game of black and white that Murakami sets up within his unique denuded language, but then proceeds to colour and shade with a remarkable simplicity. By the close of the novel we are not left with the impression of a flat, affectless protagonist but rather a skilled portrait of a man in denial. Unfortunately, Murakami’s affected simplicity of style works better in some metaphors than in others. Witness:
Tsukuru decided not to pursue it further. He could think about it all he wanted and never find an answer. He placed this doubt inside a drawer in his mind labelled “Pending” and postponed any further consideration. He had many such drawers inside him, with numerous doubts and questions tucked away.
The “emotional filing” metaphor within literature has to count among the less original; so much so that Robert Musil mocks it in his 1930-43 masterpiece (and my favourite book) The Man Without Qualities, where he proposes filing the entire schizophrenic psyche of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in one of two “Forward to/Back to” cabinets as a model of bureaucratic triumph over generalised dysfunction (“Forward to a utopian future!” “Back to traditional values!”). Yet for every clumsy misfire, Murakami offers a line or two that are so direct and poetic in their imagery that they cut to the core – like a metaphorical ‘sudden, stabbing pain… it felt like hot blood was gushing out.’ Simple, obvious, yet turned slightly in such a way as to be startling.
Tsukuru’s character marks an interesting innovation that Murakami offers on his usual formula – the limited descriptions of the narrator himself. Usually a schlub caught in a bad case of arrested development, Colorless Tsukuru offers hints that its protagonist is in another Murakami regular usually only glanced fleetingly – the cool, handsome, rich upperclassman (think Nagasawa fromNorwegian Wood, although with a touch less of The Great Gatsby). Sure, Tsukuru is still caught with an advanced case of arrested development, but his friends and colleagues are caught by surprise when Tsukuru describes himself in terms usual to a Murakami Wantanabe; wondering why he himself would condescend to entertain their company. Within Colorless Tsukuru it works, giving insecure readers the neat impression that inside we are all a little unsettled; although one could also uncharitably remark that it also exposes the limits of Murakami’s ability to conceptualise otherness. The Murakami other is always perfect, put together, somewhat unknowable and surprising (usually in a plot sense); the Murakami self is always incomplete, longing, connected in dream but disconnected in life. He writes:
“You like making things, just as your name implies,” the man said, referring to the fact that tsukuru meant “to make or build.”
Yet the symbolism of the name, to Tsukuru and to the reader, remains oblique throughout the novel and possibly authentic, possibly accidental in that frustrating but pleasurable manner with which Murakami builds the texture of his narrative. Meeting each of the characters, through the milestones of the plot, is another pleasure which is best left to the reading. They add substantially to the picture, and exist within that unique Facebookian manner of glancing sideways at the lives of others we once knew and now wonder at. But ultimately that picture remains a portrait of Tsukuru, and a worthwhile one.
One reservation remains that the journey home for the narrator is frustratingly uneven; the last chapter reads as an old short story which inspired the core beats of the novel, but which remains present – dangling, and a little outgrown by the text that precedes it. The core insight of the book is given a send-off in the chapter prior, where Murakami writes:
One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.
Almost a Zen koan; and Murakami, as always, wears his philosophical heart on his sleeve. Statements like these serve as a litmus test for readers with which it either resonates or leaves cold. I remain on the fence, but still open to being convinced. But unlike 1Q84, I depart from the text as a reader who feels their time has at least been well spent. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will undoubtedly please fans, while being unlikely to sway critics; but for those of us on said fence, it is a worthwhile opportunity to reengage with an author and friend we may have lost track of.