COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE
by Haruki Murakami; translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel | Knopf | 400 pages
In 2012, the New York Times published an illustration by Grant Snider called “Haruki Murakami Bingo.” Each square was filled with one of Murakami’s well-documented leitmotifs: “something vanishing,” “old jazz record,” “unexpected phone call,” “train station,” et cetera. As light satire goes, it was pretty accurate; anyone who’s read more than a few of Murakami’s books is familiar with these recurring subjects. And few people have read just one of Murakami’s books. The Japanese author inspires global fandom; when one of his books hits stores, the lines that form up at bookstores are akin only to the queues for Harry Potter releases. The process repeats itself in countries around the world as the various translations are published.
Here we are at another such moment: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is released in the U.S. Tuesday, Aug. 12, and American Murakami fans are in an anticipatory lather. (More than a million copies were sold in Japan in the first week after it was released, and the long lines were echoed in other countries as Korean, Catalan, Spanish, Dutch, French, Hungarian and German translations were released.) Having read the book, I can confirm that, indeed, a game of Murakami Bingo could be played with the contents – but only with a very forgiving bingo monitor. The thing that vanishes is a friendship; the old jazz record is, here, a certain recording of the Liszt piano suite “Le Mal du Pays”; the unexpected phone call is made, rather than received, by the protagonist. But fear not: There are most certainly train stations.
Discovering the plot is part of the joy of reading any book, and since this is one of Murakami’s shorter ones – no Wind-up Bird Chronicle or 1Q84 doorstop – I’ll reveal as little as possible. (I’ve never understood the appeal of a review that gives a detailed synopsis; once you start turning the pages, doesn’t it all seem pre-chewed?) Tsukuru Tazaki, our “colorless” narrator, is a lonely engineer in his late 30s who designs train stations. In his youth, he and four friends were inseparable, “like five fingers” of a hand. And then, for no apparent reason that Tsukuru is able to discern, during his sophomore year in college they froze him out. Just like that, he no longer has friends, and having never developed the ability to make friends (as well as being more than a little traumatized) Tsukuru becomes a high-functioning hermit. He goes to work, eats, sleeps, showers, exercises, all alone, lacking any real human connection. The action begins when Tsukuru is prodded into discovering what, exactly, happened 16 years before, a journey that takes him from Tokyo to Nagoya to Finland.
Like most (or, arguably, all, even his nonfiction) of Murakami’s books, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is essentially a detective story, but here the MacGuffin is Tsukuru’s soul, and the violence is bloodless. The slightly flattened affect of Murakami’s prose is no doubt partly the effect of translation, but it works here to enhance rather than detract: Tsukuru is a PTSD victim, zombified by emotional trauma, still alive yet outside life. Each of his friends’ Japanese names contained a color – black, white, red and blue – whereas his name does not, leading him to feel that he is just a blank: “I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity. Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.” The steps he takes to rejoin the world revive him, and cause the color to come back into his life.
The fundamental, indispensable Murakami Bingo item – present in every book – is his trademark mix of the mundane and the otherworldly. In the case of 1Q84 and Wind-up Bird or even the great early books, especially A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the fantastical is top-level. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is heavily weighted toward the everyday world, with overt eeriness confined to a single chapter, in a story told fourth-hand to Tsukuru. But even in this genuinely relatable human tale, dense with exquisite descriptions of pain, the eerie drifts in like wisps of mist at the margins. As he pursues an explanation for the past, “ever so slowly, Tsukuru felt reality drain from things around him.” Humdrum reality frosted over a cake of deep weirdness, and the pleasurable, flickering unknowability of whether that weirdness is simply foreignness or something else – this may be the key to Murakami’s popularity outside Japan.
Tsukuru’s name doesn’t contain a color – he may spend all his life feeling like a blank. But it does have an alternate meaning, like his friends’ colorful names: tsukuru means “build.” Murakami’s ending leaves many questions unresolved, except this one – clearly colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is in the process of building a life.