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The International Writers Magazine:Book Review

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & his years of pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami (Translated by Philip Gabriel)
Harvill Secker 2014
ISBN: 978-1-848-55833-7
• Sam North review
A caution: a writer friend in New York, Walli Leff upon hearing I was about to review Murakami’s latest said ‘Credit him for daring to write a depressing story when people clamor for entertainment and tales of success.  Credit him for daring to have his protagonist endeavor to rekindle a valued but apparently firmly closed past, at the risk of winding up even more cast off…’ 

Yes I agree, it does present a challenge to the reader and Murakami has surely earned the right to do as he pleases after all these years.

Perhaps I can understand why this novel has been such a success in Japan. So many salarymen live such colorless lives, often commuting for three hours a day or more punctuated by occasional alcohol binges. So many young Japanese fear the conformist trajectory of their lives and a story about strong childhood bonding and rejection from the ‘group’ must resonate.  No one wants to be rejected. Equally without giving much away, the writer touches on how some have to leave Japan to truly find themselves and certainly I think that is true of Japanese citizens I have met who have blossomed abroad.

Colorless Tazaki is not the loser one might assume from the title however.  He is only colorless because his name doesn’t have a color in it.  His four childhood friends all had names that had a color interpretation. Aka (Red) Ao (Blue), Shiro (White) Kuro (Black). Tazaki’s name indicates creator, a maker of things and that is what he is and has always wanted to be. As a child Tazaki formed this strong bond with his four friends. Two girls, three boys.  They kept this bond all the way up to his twentieth birthday, even after he had abandoned his home city to attend University in Tokyo where he studied engineering.  Each of them were not complete without the other, making a conscious decision not to pair up to avoid breaking their bond.

Tazaki is now a railroad engineer, supervising the construction of new stations or refurbishing old ones.  A responsible job that carries with it some respect. (Think not of decrepit American railroads, but superfast Bullet Trains moving millions of people a day).  But Tazaki is alone - hollowed out – a mere cipher compared to the boy he was growing up.  One event is responsible. The day his friends cut him off forever.  He came back from University for a vacation and discovered they no longer wished to speak to him. Ever again.  No explanation. Nothing. "It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask."

He was 20 years old and the severing completely destabilized him to the point where he wished to die.  He was nothing without his friends. Colorless.  That moment changed him forever. And it is curious he could never bring himself to ask why.

Now 36 – working in Tokyo, he finds that he has a history of lack of commitment in relationships, male or female. The damage done to him by the group has lasted sixteen years and perhaps will shape his life for all time.

We endure his life along with him. Swimming, the odd sexual fantasy about Shiro, the pretty one of the group, as well as eating, sleeping.  Tazaki’s life is dull.  He is fond of classical music, but generally listens to only one old LP, Liszts 'Years of Pilgrimage' because 'Le mal du pays' makes him think of Shiro, who played the piano with a passion. He is trying to make a go of a relationship with Sara, an older woman (by two years) who, being wiser than him, realised that he is emotionally blocked.  She challenges him – go fix your past. Confront the issues that led to your exile and only then will we be able to move on as a couple.  Tazaki is reluctant. He has enough problems with emotion without dealing with the angst of closure, or confronting his former friends. But to please Sara he agrees to go home and seek them out.

That’s the story of Colorless Tazaki.  He has no closeness with his family; the group had nurtured him in his early years, another reason he has problems with relationships.  There are hints of old Murakami stories and characters here.  The Madness that permeates Norwegian Wood; the isolation that pervades 1984.  There are many pages devoted to the mundane task of just living. Swimming, eating, washing, the mechanics of living.  There is the curious homoerotic friendship with a younger male student, Haida. (Mr Gray)  They swim together, listen to music, but sleep in separate beds. It is unconsummated (perhaps on how you intepret a dream about ejeculation), but certainly there. Haida tells a story told to him by his father (which he has remembered in great detail) about a jazz pianist who is under a sentence of death but wishes to hand this burden over to someone else, preferably his father. It is the most interesting part of the novel but in some respects doesn't belong there at all.

But when the story finally reaches a point where he embarks upon closure – I feel that something else happens.  The characters’ dialogue becomes unnatural, stagy.  I realise that no one wants to face closure, but all his friends, even Haida, seem to be speak, lecture even, in the same voice, as if one character is playing all the other parts. I wonder is this the translation?  Did Murakami deliberately abandon an attempt at individual characterisation and distinction? Is it an experiment?  Or is it just the quest for redemption by Tazaki a reflection of the emptiness of his soul. 

Even Sara can fall victim to corporate speak and it is disconcerting.  Only Kuro (Eri), one of the original friends, seems alive and human and that is possibly because she has escaped Japan to the flatness of Finland.  What Tazaki discovers about his friends and about himself and what they thought of him is the fascinating structural foundation this story is built upon.  He seems curiously detached from the whole process however. No anger or sweaty pores. It is strange.  One wishes he could be more emotional or even get wasted. Something.

One thing is for sure, any man who would put himself through this ordeal is not colorless and perhaps that is the true purpose of this novel. Any one of us could be faced by the same thing. Some event in your past that has had a dreadful ripple effect throughout your life.  Murakami has written an uncomfortable book about a simple man trying to make sense of his life and that is all there is to it.
“Have you ever had any doubts about your job?”
 “Everyday I just build things you can see. I have no time for doubts.”

© Sam North  December 2014
Joint author of:
Another Place To Die
Another Place To Die:
The Endtime Chronicles
- 'Sometimes surviving is the hardest choice'

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