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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

If Haruki Murakami wanted to dissuade people from calling him a latter-day Kafka, it probably wasn’t a good idea to call one of his most celebrated novels KAFKA ON THE SHORE. Perhaps he was having fun with critics by naming his teenage protagonist after the Czech surrealist, or by writing a short story entitled “Samsa in Love” for The New Yorker, but the comparison to Kafka is apt. Like Kafka, Murakami’s work often dramatizes the metaphysical journey of loners confused by their lot in life and struggling to make sense of circumstances. Most of Murakami’s works have surrealist elements, but even a straightforward coming-of-age novel like NORWEGIAN WOOD deals with themes of isolation and loneliness.

The same is true for his latest novel, COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE. The surrealism quotient is much lower in the new work than in predecessors such as THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE or 1Q84, but readers will recognize familiar themes: a young protagonist befuddled by outside forces; dreamlike meditations on alienation; and a conversational, deceptively simple writing style.

"[Murakami's] prose style is chatty and straightforward, with a lot of stage direction and lengthy conversations. The philosophical heft of his themes makes this technique work.... a mesmerizing novel by one of the world’s best storytellers."

The setting is the present day. Thirty-six-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki works for a railway division in Tokyo. He design train stations, a job that allows him to pursue his childhood fascination with locomotives. He is neither thrilled with his work nor disheartened by it. What does dishearten him are his unmarried status and the lack of relationships he has had with women. He is currently dating 38-year-old Sara, a travel agent with whom, in a series of conversations throughout the novel, he confides his feelings about a traumatic event from 16 years earlier.

When he was in high school in the small town of Nagoya, Tsukuru was a member of a close-knit group of five friends. He was different from the two women and two other men in various ways. His family was the richest, and “an aunt on his mother’s side was an actress.” But the distinction he muses upon most is that the surnames of the other four friends all contained a color. The boys’ names were Akamatsu (nickname Aka), which means red pine, and Oumi (Ao), which means blue sea. The girls were Shirane (Shiro), or white root, and Kurono (Kuro), or black field. Although he knew that having a color in your name did not reflect upon your personality, he felt hurt by this distinction.

His friends teased him about his colorlessness, but it did not affect their relationship. They were close throughout high school and remained so even when Tsukuru was the only one of the five to leave Nagoya and go to college in Tokyo. But the summer before Tsukuru’s sophomore year, when he returned to Nagoya and tried to reunite with his friends, none of them returned his calls. Finally, Ao called him and told him that he and the other three friends never wanted to see Tsukuru again. When Tsukuru asked why, Ao said, “Think about it, and you’ll figure it out.”

Tsukuru went back to Tokyo the next day. For five months, he was so depressed by this abrupt rejection that he contemplated suicide. The period of depression passed, but his banishment has perplexed him for 16 years. Sara suggests that Tsukuru track down his old friends and find out what happened. Much of the narrative depicts Tsukuru’s investigations as he learns the group members’ reasons for his swift rejection.

If you’ve read Murakami before, you know what to expect from COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI. His prose style is chatty and straightforward, with a lot of stage direction and lengthy conversations. The philosophical heft of his themes makes this technique work. And music plays a large role in the plot, as it has done in many of his other books. In this case, the recurring piece is Years of Pilgrimage, a collection of solo piano works by Franz Liszt.

Although the novel describes vivid dreams, the effect is not as fabulous as in his earlier works. Sara is a sounding board rather than a character, but the other characters are more compelling. Each of the five friends has had a heartbreaking transition from adolescence to adulthood, and Murakami beautifully dramatizes their challenges and tragedies. COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI doesn’t quite reach the grandeur of some of Murakami’s earlier works, but this is still a mesmerizing novel by one of the world’s best storytellers.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on August 12, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

  • Publication Date: August 12, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0385352107
  • ISBN-13: 9780385352109