I have been a Murakami fan since about 1999, when my favorite teacher in grad school had us read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in class. Since then I’ve tried to read almost every book he’s published. Here’s my review of his new one for Dallas Morning News:
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
In Japan, the publication of a Haruki Murakami book is met with frenzied anticipation. His new novel,Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, sold more than 1 million copies the first week it was released there. American audiences were eager enough for his last novel, the thousand-page 1Q84, to propel it onto the best-seller lists for several weeks.
He’s won so many fans across the world, perhaps, because a reader opens a Murakami book with the expectation that anything can happen and that a story begun in realism will soon take off toward dreamlike realms.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki alights in some mysterious places but doesn’t settle there. It’s more straightforward than Murakami’s most recent works of fiction, especially the sprawling 1Q84. In fact, the few potentially supernatural elements Murakami introduces can be explained as dreams, mental illness or misunderstandings rather than true breaks with natural law, an approach reminiscent of one of his earlier, much-beloved novels, Norwegian Wood (published in 1984 in Japan and in 2000 here).
Thirty-six-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki is mild-mannered to a fault. He works as a train station engineer at the same company he’s been with for 14 years, a career path he found easily because of his fascination with train stations. He lives in a Tokyo apartment inherited from his real estate developer father, doesn’t see his family back home in the suburbs of Nagoya much, has few friends, and has never traveled out of Japan. “Habit, in fact, was what propelled his life forward,” Murakami writes.
As the book opens, Tsukuru has just met a fetching woman, Sara Kimoto, and after a few dates he thinks he might be ready to make a real commitment to her, something he’s never done before, but Sara tells him to slow down. She questions him about his past and he tells her about the extremely close friendships he forged in high school with two girls and two boys. The five friends did everything together and shared all their thoughts and aspirations.
The other four friends had names with colors in them, while Tsukuru did not, which is why he’s thought of himself as colorless ever since then. Tsukuru was the only one of the five friends to leave home for college, heading for a Tokyo engineering program. One day, shortly after he started college, all four friends rejected him and told him they wanted no more contact with him, offering no explanation.
Harrowing months during which he wallowed in confusion and depression followed, and although he tells himself he’s over the rejection, he’s made few close friends since. One friend he met during his regular swimming workouts in college also ditched him abruptly, an echo of the earlier rejection.
With so many interpersonal ruptures, Tsukuru has grown skilled at compartmentalizing his pain and doubts. “He placed this doubt inside a drawer in his mind labeled ‘Pending’ and postponed any further consideration,” Murakami writes. “He had many such drawers inside him, with numerous doubts and questions tucked away inside.”
Sara tells Tsukuru she sometimes senses he’s someplace else, and “if we’re going to have a serious relationship, I don’t want whatever it is to come between us.” She sends him on a quest to find each of his friends and talk with them about what happened 16 years earlier. Tsukuru is at first reluctant, but eventually agrees to do as Sara asks.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is replete with emotionally frank, philosophical discussions. It’s a gentle ride, without the depictions of violence that sometimes occur in Murakami, and any traumas are recounted in retrospect, now covered with the tempering blanket of time. The mood is melancholic, with Liszt’s “Le Mal du Pays” — a song one of Tsukuru’s high school friends used to play on the piano — serving as the anthem.
Tsukuru interprets the title of the piece to mean, “The groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape,” and the plot of the novel is essentially Tsukuru’s investigation into his own groundless sadness, which turns out to be not so inexplicable after all.
Murakami doesn’t tie up every loose end in this quiet, reflective novel, but he does enough to satisfy. In the end, Tsukuru’s quest into his past helps him clarify what he wants from his present, and emboldens him to seek it.