Last August 12, Haruki Murakami released his latest English-translated novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I was one of the many who was looking forward to this novel, his first after the strange chunkster 1Q84. Without knowing anything about it, I was intrigued by the new novel’s title – who was Tsukuru Tazaki and why was he colorless? What did that even mean? And “years of pilgrimage,” seems to be a strange phrase that doesn’t exactly sound right grammatically. Put together, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage promised to be a strange novel full of invisible people perhaps (or at least one person), who time travel or else spends the rest of his days travelling to exotic places. With a title like that, the possibilities were endless – it IS a Murakami novel after all.
So imagine my disappointment when Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage turned out to be about an ordinary man, Tsukuru Tazaki, whose life was almost destroyed when, during his sophomore year in college, his four closest friends from high school decided suddenly and without explanation to cut him off completely from their close-knit group.
Tsukuru met the four people who would later become his closest friends in high school while doing volunteer work. Ao, the jock, Aki, the nerd, Kuro, the outspoken comedian, and Shiro, the sensitive, beautiful musician. Coincidentally, all four had surnames which were in part, a color – Ao, which meant blue, Aki – red, Kuro – black, and Shiro – white. Unfortunately, Tsukuru’s surname, Tazaki, didn’t have a color element in it. His “colorlessness” was a great source of amusement, to his four colorful friends, to his slight annoyance.
Besides having a surname that was not related to any color, Tsukuru felt that he was an entirely colorless, or boring person. His face, though not ugly, was without any distinguishing features. He was without any special talents or skills; he was not exceptionally smart, but could get by by studying hard, and he had no strange quirks or philosophy in life. In other words, he was, to his estimation, a downright, simple guy with almost no personality. His only passion in life, if you could even call it that, was his love for train stations and the process that goes into building one.
After high school, Tsukuru Tazaki applied to an engineering college in Tokyo to fulfill his dreams of building train stations, leaving his four friends behind. Though his four friends all stayed behind in Nagoya to pursue their own interests, Tsukuru’s absence didn’t seem to affect their friendship. Tsukuru would come home from Tokyo during summer or winter vacations, and the five of them would spend their days together, talking and hanging out.
Everything was going well in Tsukuru’s life; he was living in a one bedroom condominium in Tokyo owned by his family, studying engineering and going home to Nagoya whenever he could to be with his friends – that is, until that fateful summer day during his sophomore year, when Tsukuru’s four friends suddenly decided that they would stop speaking to him forever.
The event, though strange, was far from tragic, but for Tsukuru, who had never made a friend in Tokyo the whole time he was there, it felt like his world had crumbled. For the next 6 months after his friends had cut him off completely, he had become obsessed with death and dying.
Now, 16 years later, Tsukuru Tazaki is living his dream working in Tokyo building railroad stations. He has all but forgotten his four colorful friends, the woman he has been seeing asks him about his past. After listening to Tsukuru’s story, she believes that the strange event among the five friends is more important to Tsukuru than he lets on, and that he still has some unresolved issues. She firmly believes that unless Tsukuru reconnects with his four friends and asks them to explain their motive for cutting him off, he will never be able to move on with his life and form meaningful relationships with other people, including herself.
With the help of his pseudo-girlfriend who was very good at searching for people online, Tsukuru sets out to find his four friends and to get to the bottom of the mystery of why he was suddenly and completely dropped from the “orderly, harmonious community” they once created. The outcome of his quest is a bit surprising, and even stranger than he had imagined.
The “Years of His Pilgrimage” part of the title is not about an actual pilgrimage that he goes on for several years. It is simply the title of a Franz Liszt composition which was mentioned several times and essentially the soundtrack for this novel.
Aside from South of the Border, West of the Sun, which is really more of a novella, Colorless Tsukuru is the first “normal” full-length Murakami I’ve read. Normal in the sense that there weren’t any surreal / paranormal / weird /bizarre characters and events in it. As a matter of fact, the only thing I found strange about this novel was the author’s awkward writing. I know I have no right to question Murakami’s writing style – I am definitely no writer, but early on in the novel, I found myself frowning on his word choices and sentence constructions. Words and phrases were used repeatedly to describe different things, and the dialogue seemed a bit awkward at times. In my mind I tried to translate the dialogue in Japanese (with the very little Japanese I know), just to see if it would come out better. It even came to a point when I started blaming Philip Gabriel for his poor translation.
It wasn’t until I came across an article in The Atlantic about Murakami that I stopped criticizing the translator. Sorry Mr. Gabriel. The article, which talks about Murakami’s novels, characters, and odd writing style in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was spot on, and I was a bit surprised, and relieved, that I wasn’t the only one who thought the writing was fairly….noticeable. I think most people will agree with the points raised in the article, whether or not they are fans of Murakami.
Even with its slow pacing and an ending that would leave you wanting, I wouldn’t call Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage bad, or a waste of time. It is interesting in its own right, and offers many insights on Japanese culture and psyche. I will say that it was a bit disappointing. Not because there weren’t any of the usual Murakami strangeness in it (though I was hoping there would be), but because the story, except for a few parts, really just seemed a bit ordinary and mundane.
BONUS: I’m sharing this interesting article about Murakami’s novels and the music that accompany them; the article includes a very cool Spotify playlist of all the music he has ever mentioned. The playlist is called The Music of Haruki Murakami. Enjoy!
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) – Haruki Murakami
Knopf; 386 pages
Personal rating: 2.5/5