Haruki Murakami conducts a quest into the past as his hero tries to understand a long-ago rejection

Haruki Murakami examines friendship, rejection andsecrets as his ordinary hero tries to fill in theblanks of his student past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 6:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 10:40am

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is many things to many people. Prophet, meta-fictional guru, excavator of Japanese society and culture, Kafkaesque conspiracy theorist, pop-culture titan, experimental novelist par excellence, and - as the million readers who bought Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage in its first week of publication can attest - a bona fide bestseller.

His 13th full-length work of fiction draws from many of these familiar wellsprings. It is disarmingly easy to read - disarming because the plot is undramatic to the point of being, well, colourless. A man recalls intense absent friendships from his past, seeks them out on the orders of his on-off girlfriend, learns a startling secret and that's pretty much it - although of course it isn't, not by a long shot.

Our hero is Tsukuru Tazaki, although exactly what kind of hero he is puzzles the imagination: "Sometimes, when he looked at his face in the mirror, he detected an incurable boredom. He had no deep interest in the arts, no hobby or special skill. He was, if anything, a bit taciturn; he blushed easily, wasn't especially outgoing, and could never relax around people he'd just met."

As big build-ups go, this is hardly on a par with Homer introducing Odysseus, Shakespeare preparing us for Othello, or Bret Easton Ellis slipping Patrick Bateman's psychopathology under our radar. Instead, Tsukuru is 36 years old and attracted to train stations (a hobby of sorts, surely) to the extent that he works for a railway company designing stations in the Kanto region around Tokyo.

As Murakami's title teases, Tsukuru is ordinary to the point of invisibility: "Though he lacked a striking personality, or any qualities that made him stand out, and despite always aiming for what was average, the middle of the road, there was (or seemed to be) something about him that wasn't exactly normal, something that set him apart."

This summary is somewhat unfair as Murakami has already revealed part of what makes Tsukuru worthy of our mordant fascination. The quotable opening sentence goes as follows: "From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying." The line's strangeness is carefully modulated. There's the weird precision of Tsukuru's obsession: a July-to-January romance. And instead of being preoccupied with death, Tsukuru can't stop thinking about dying, something more serious and pragmatic altogether. The reason he doesn't end his life is not a matter of fear but aesthetics: "Perhaps he didn't commit suicide then because he couldn't conceive of a method that fit the pure and intense feelings he had towards death."

The reason for these feelings is a weird kind of banishment. At high school, Tsukuru becomes part of an intimate, even emotionally vampiric gang with two other boys (Ao and Aka) and two girls (Shiro and Kuro). The quintet meet while volunteer teaching during their summer vacation: Aka (red) is the clever one; Ao (blue) is the outgoing rugby fanatic; beautiful Shiro (white) is a talented pianist; and Kuru (black) is vivacious and, seemingly, a novelist in waiting.

Tsukuru, whose name means "create" or "build" depending on whether you use a Chinese or Japanese character in his name, seems colourless by comparison. Although the five work in perfect harmony, talking all the time, he always feels like the group's spare wheel: "Did the others really need him? Wouldn't they be able to relax and have a better time if he weren't there? Maybe they just hadn't realised it yet, and it was only a matter of time before they did."

And then one day, he isn't there. The friends go to university, but remain connected. Tsukuru is the only one to venture outside of their hometown of Nagoya: he studies railway station design (what else) in Tokyo.

We are in prime Murakami territory with a Kafkaesque character who feels responsible for something but has no idea what he has done

Coming home one holiday, he finds he has been ostracised. There is no explanation, beyond a cryptic reference to the fact that he ought to know what he's done. Cue those seven months filled with thoughts of dying.

A large part of what makes Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage so readable is the ways it insinuates itself as a mystery story in the opening third: what led to Tsukuru's banishment? Murakami knows how to keep us hanging on his every clue as the story shuttles back and forth in time.

We are in prime Murakami territory with a Kafkaesque character who feels responsible for something but has no idea what he has done. His girlfriend, Sara, has no such qualms and demands that Tsukuru try to find the truth. Elegant, self-possessed but slow to commit to our hero, she rightly suspects some void where Tsukuru's heart should be. "I think you're a good person and I really like you," she says, as if beginning the classic "It's me, not you" speech. "But I think you have - some kind of unresolved emotional issues."

Besides stating the obvious, Sara pushes Tsukuru forward into the novel's main section - where he will not only discover the truth about the past but also about himself. Tsukuru has long thought something is awry within him, "something illogical, something twisted". The problem is how to know this for sure.

Is Murakami playing a dark game with us concerning Tsukuru's lack of self-knowledge? How in control is Tsukuru of his desires or actions? In the friendship between our hero and his philosophising friend, Haida, the line between what is imaginary and what is real becomes so blurred we can't be sure whether one section describes the world's oddest threesome or its strangest masturbation fantasy.

Just when Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki seems on the verge of something sensationalist, it retreats for quieter contemplations. That odd title, reminiscent perhaps of Murakami's 1985 book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, is actually inspired by Franz Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage - Years of Pilgrimage, which itself owes debts to Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

One beautiful suite, Le Mal du Pays, haunts the novel and in particular the character of Shiro. The phrase translates as "homesickness", which captures Tsukuru's longing for his past and his friends in Nagoya. Like the heroes in Byron and Goethe, his pilgrimage is a solitary journey towards self-knowledge.

Does the novel convince? Like much of Murakami's work, yes and no. Many will be left wanting for a new and even mature tone. Gone, for instance, are the zippy references to rock'n'roll. In their place a wealth of allusions to classical music: Haydn, Beethoven and, most importantly, Liszt. What presents itself as a muted psychological thriller ends in the pensive final chapter as a novel of introspection and ideas.

It is tempting at times to read the story as a veiled autobiography. Murakami seems to be satirising criticism that his work is coolly, even efficiently, brilliant, that it is all surface craft at the expense of feeling. There are knowing references to ornate patterns (intersecting railway lines), the coded ciphers of musical notation, the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy which could stand as doubles for Murakami's literary jigsaw puzzles.

More pertinent is this description of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage: "Most people see Liszt's piano music as more superficial, and technical. Of course, he has some tricky pieces, but if you listen very carefully … you discover a depth to it you don't notice at first. Most of the time it's hidden behind all these embellishments."

Few could describe Murakami's prose as embellished. True, there are moments of strikingly odd lyricism. A woman's heels clacking down a hallway are like "the sounds a faithful blacksmith makes early in the morning". But on the whole his writing is functional and clear.

For all that, and for all its attractive storytelling, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage never quite earns the emotional punch it yearns for so keenly. There's an awful lot of telling going on, and not much show. Murakami describes his ideas, characters and plot lines wonderfully, but still doesn't convince the reader of the aching, occasionally desperate emotional states they reach.

As 13th novels go, this is pretty impressive. But Murakami's pilgrim still has a way to progress.

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