Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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Translated by Philip Gabriel

Reviewed by Tony Malone

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage  is the story of thirty-six-year-old train station designer Tsukuru Tazaki, a native of Nagoya who moved to Tokyo for study and work and has stayed there ever since.  At the start of the novel, he has recently begun a tentative relationship with the beautiful Sara Kimoto, one he’s hoping will grow into something stronger.  He’s rich, good looking and successful in his job, so you’d expect him to be happy – sadly, that’s not the case.

His problems go back to his younger days, when Tsukuru was part of a group of five inseparable high-school kids, each of whom (with the exception of Tsukuru) had a name which contained a colour.  Suddenly, without warning, the other four cut him adrift, and this rejection by his friends sent him spiralling into depression:

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.  A remote border on the edges of consciousness.

The following months are a period of great suffering, and while Tsukuru eventually manages to pull himself out of the abyss, the events of the time have left a deep impression on his life.

Despite the importance of the relationship with his friends, he never dared to ask why they cut him off, but sixteen years later, at Sara’s prompting, Tsukuru Tazaki decides that it’s time to confront the past.  Why was he ostracised by his closest friends for reasons he can’t even begin to understand?  And, more importantly, why can’t he move on with his life?  In order to move on, Tsukuru needs to find out the truth, and so he embarks on a quest which will take him back to his home town and then much further afield, all in the hope of ending the hurt he feels once and for all.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki… is one of the more ‘normal’ Murakami books, but there are still plenty of the slightly off-kilter elements the reader would expect from his writing.  We’re treated to dreams, strange characters, fascinating and secretive women, stories within stories and, of course, an unresolved ending.  Most readers will compare the novel to Norwegian Wood, and with good reason.  The two books are fairly similar in that both focus on a thirty-something man looking back at a pivotal year of his life.  The difference is that where Toru Watanabe is focused on the then, Tsukuru Tazaki is functioning in the now, determined to address the pain caused by the events of his youth.  There are also parallels between some of the female characters in the books, with the light and dark of Shiro and Kuro (white and black) complementing the earlier couple of Naoko and Midori (whose name means ‘green’…).

While in one sense the idea of colours is a bit of a red (!) herring (it’s got nothing to do with why he was rejected by his friends), it does play an important role throughout the novel.  Part of Tsukuru’s problem is that deep down he really does believe that he is colourless:

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.

At the beginning, the reader is fooled into seeing things the way Tsukuru does, but once we meet his former friends, we begin to realise that Tsukuru has a lot going for himself.  They emphasise his good looks, his likeable nature, the way he acted as a glue to hold the group together – he just can’t see it himself.  This is as true in real life as it is in the novel; it’s all too easy to think of others as ‘colourful’ and much brighter than ourselves…

When the title first became known in English, many people thought that it would be simplified for the translation (it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue…).  However, it’s actually an important reflection of the content and themes of the novel, giving several clues as to what lies ahead.  Quite apart from the colour aspect, there’s the significance of the name ‘Tsukuru’ (the Japanese verb for ‘make’ or ‘construct’), an apt name for a man destined to go out into the world to build train stations.  The name was chosen, after considerable deliberation, by Tsukuru’s father, and it’s hard to avoid thinking that rather than Tsukuru choosing his path in life, his name – colourless as it is – decided that path for him.

The second part of the title is just as important, as the years of pilgrimage that it refers to are not just those Tsukuru spends searching for the truth. Liszt’s set of piano suites, Années de pèlerinage (which, in turn, takes its title from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre), features heavily in the novel, and one haunting piece, ‘Le mal du pays’, acts as a kind of leitmotif, recurring throughout the book.   Shiro played the piece constantly during her piano practice, and a later friend Haida (whose name contains the character for ‘grey’…) leaves the record of the suites at Tsukuru’s apartment.  If Lazar Berman’s interpretation of Liszt’s work goes rocketing up the classical music charts, you’ll know why…

Having said all this, you might wonder what I actually thought of the book.  Well, on completing my first read, I dashed off a quick tweet which said: ‘Really enjoyed this, a great book – the lovers will love it, and the haters will hate it.‘ And that pretty much sums it up (I could have saved myself the trouble of writing the review, really).

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m most definitely on the side of the lovers…

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By Tony Malone, revised from the review previously published on his blog Tony’s Reading List.

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Harvill Secker: London, 2014; Vintage Paperback, July 2015). ISBN: 9780099590378, 304 pp., paperback.

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