Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

In Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014), the main character Tsukuru in high school has four close friends: two men and two women.  They do everything together.  When they graduate, four of them stay in their home town, but one, Tsukuru, goes to Tokyo to study engineering.  In his sophomore year, returning home for a visit, Tsukuru learns that his friends do not want to see him again, and that he is not to attempt to contact them.  This dismissal causes a terrible crisis in his life.  For six months he is depressed, at loose ends, on the verge of death, either through suicide or simply through wasting away.  Gradually he recovers his equilibrium and goes on with his life.  For years he doesn’t look back, accepting without question the loss of his friends. This is the underlying premise of Murakami’s most recent novel.  The question it circles around concerns the reasons for the dismissal, and what will happen with Tsukuru.

1. The narrative focuses on Tsukuru’s thoughts and experiences.  We sink deeply into his mind.  I cannot tell whether it is Murakami himself driving the translated prose, or whether his translator is simply a good writer, but the narration is smooth, calm, and immersive. There hardly seems to be separation between ourselves as the readers and Tsukuru’s thoughts as main character.  For much of the novel, this approach is effective.  In the end, it becomes irritating when the author rather than illustrating certain realizations coming to Tsukuru simply describes what they are. 

2. I did not recognize until almost the end that a schematic design drives this novel, so that the effect is too automatic.  We assume early on that we will learn the cause of the schism between Tsukuru and friends.  That point arrives, ultimately, in a way that is too formulaic.  Seventeen years after he lost his friends, Tsukuru meets and becomes interested in Sara Kimoto, a woman a few years older than he.  They spend the night together, and a longer-term relationship seems a possibility.  When he tells her about the loss of his friends, she is surprised that he has never tried to learn the reason for the break.  She tells him that if he wants her to consider him seriously he must visit the former friends and ask for an explanation.  He does so, he learns what happened--a terrible misunderstanding and failure of personal ethics on the part of his former friends—but it is all too down to earth.  The explanation is more like something you’d learn from an episode of Dr. Phil than what you expect from a Murakami narrative.  After this point, the novel has nowhere to go.

3. Tsukuru’s attitude towards himself and his life is too self-absorbed, too sentimental.  He is weak, passive, and besotted with the inertia of a mind that cannot will itself forward.  Instead he must wait for things to happen, and it is only through the insistence of the woman he thinks he might love that he decides to contact his former friends.  Is my judgment of Tsukuru based on some misunderstanding of Japanese culture?  Is Tsukuru a typical Japanese male?  Or is his passivity, his solipsistic self-scrutiny, an aberration of character?  One evening as he prepares to reconnect with his old friends, he sits in a restaurant, looking out the window, and sees Sara Kimoto, the woman whom he thinks he may love, walking down the street with another man.  Tsukuru doesn’t know what this means.  Is she involved with another man?  Is her interest in him different from his interest in her?  He doesn’t seek answers to these questions.  Suddenly his future seems less certain, unsettled.  He is forced out of his self-absorption to consider that his future with her is not set, that it is in fact wholly unresolved.  Yet his inherently passive attitude doesn’t alter.  He knows he will accept whatever happens, even if it means he dies.  This attitude is exasperating.

4. Not surprisingly, there is no true resolution to this novel.  It ends without ending.  Tsukuru prepares to have dinner with Sara.  She will tell him that she wants a relationship with him, or she will dismiss him.  He doesn’t know which.  He wants a life with her, and believes that if she rejects him he may die.  But he is willing to accept whatever happens.   Other elements of the novel end unresolved as well, but they did not bother me so much—Tsukuru’s strange sexual dreams involving two of his friends, the disappearance of Fumiyaki Haida, the student he became friends with in college, the nature of another friend’s death.  These are all left unresolved.  The novel hints faintly that in some way Tsukuru might have been involved in his friend’s death, or that his dreams might have been more real than they seemed, that his fantasies may be entwined with his realities (a standard Murakami theme), but it also hints with equal contrary force that none of this may be true.  It just ends.  That is the way of life, irresolution, uncertainty, continuance, until the final moment of blackness.

5. Colorless Tsukuru has great narrative force.  I enjoyed reading it, until it fell victim to its own scheme.  Moreover, the stakes are not earthshaking. Or are my reservations the result of the possibility that in reading this minor Murakami book, after having read several other much better ones—Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—I am simply recognizing designs that were there all along?


Like other Murakami novels, this one explores the meaning of identity and personal responsibility and the relation of fantasy and reality.  It is highly readable, interesting, and exasperating.  Patti Smith, in her New York Times review, writes, "On a first reading, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' seems kin to Murakami’s more minimalist novels 'Sputnik Sweetheart' or 'Norwegian Wood,' but it does not really fall into that category. Nor is it written with the energetic vibe of 'Pinball, 1973' or in the multidimensional vein of his masterpiece, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.' Here and there realism is tinged with the parallel worlds of ‘ IQ84,' particularly through dreams. The novel contains a fragility that can be found in 'Kafka on the Shore,' with its infinite regard for music. . . . there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. 'One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,' Tsukuru comes to understand. '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.’"

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