August 24, 2014

Haruki Murakami’s new novel masterfully traces a man’s melancholy pilgrimage

Reality proves to be a painful tangle of the unknown for Tsukuru, the 36-year-old protagonist of Haruki Murakami’s new novel. On the surface, he leads an orderly, harmonious existence. But inwardly, he roils with rejection and hurt.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel” by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 400 pages, $25.95)

In its first week in Japan last year, Haruki Murakami’s new novel sold 1 million copies – a figure that most U.S. writers would die for.

Murakami carries the kind of celebrity clout in his home country that English-speaking audiences reserve only for J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter fans notoriously swarmed bookstores by the hundreds, ready to snatch up the latest volume at its midnight release.

What is surprising in all this is the kind of fiction Murakami writes: cerebral and elegant at times, magical and enigmatic at others, but always metaphysical in the best sense of the word – whether in the surrealistic behemoth “1Q84,” which captured the public’s imagination in 2011, or the more realistic “Norwegian Wood,” which made him a global literary phenomenon in the late 1980s.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” clearly falls into the realistic camp. But its seamless construction, associative storytelling and searching conversations lend it a powerful, dreamlike quality. And, not surprisingly for Murakami, dreams – some graphic and disturbing – figure prominently in the storyline, either reflecting or shaping real-life events.

As one character puts it: “I do think that sometimes a certain kind of dream can be even stronger than reality.”

Reality, however, proves to be a painful tangle of the unknown for Tsukuru, the 36-year-old protagonist of the novel, an engineer who designs and refurbishes railway stations – the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. On the surface, he leads an orderly, harmonious existence. But inwardly, he roils with rejection and hurt.

Part of an intimate circle of five friends in high school, all of whom had last names that reflected a color – “red pine,” “blue sea,” “white root” and “black field,” except for the “colorless” Tsukuru (whose first name means “maker” or “creator”) – he thought that the three boys, Ao, Aka and himself, and the two girls, Shiro and Kuro, would share a lifelong bond: “The whole convergence was like a lucky but entirely accidental chemical fusion, something that could only happen once.”

As Ao later recalls, “You know, in a sense we were a perfect combination, the five of us. Like five fingers. … The five of us all naturally made up for what was lacking in the others, and totally shared our better qualities.”

But when Tsukuru leaves his hometown of Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo, while the others stay behind, the friendships start to unravel. Soon, on a return trip home, he finds that none of the four wants anything to do with him. They all abruptly shut him out.

The mystery of this betrayal – so brutal and unexpected – haunts him for six agonizing months: “From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.”

He gradually steps back from the brink, puts his meager life together and obsesses in silence over his unjust fate. “Like a person in a storm desperately grasping at a lamppost, he clung to (his) daily routine,” Murakami writes. “He only spoke to people when necessary, and after school, he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life.”

For the next 16 years, he lives in exile, with no contact from the group. No notion of what went wrong. No real reason to live.

Slowly, he forms a friendship with Haida (whose name means “gray field”), a fellow college student who shares his love of swimming and of classical music, especially “Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness)” from Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage.” Then Haida, like the others, inexplicably vanishes.

At last prodded by his new girlfriend, Sara, to confront his past, Tsukuru sets out on a heroic pilgrimage that takes him back to Nagoya and on to Finland in search of the reason his former friends so ruthlessly ruined his life.

“You need to come face-to-face with the past,” Sara tells him, “not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional. Not to see what you want to see, but what you must see.”

What he sees – or more accurately, hears – as he meets with three of the four members is a horrific revelation that all of them questioned at the time, but quickly rationalized out of a deep-seated need to protect the cohesiveness of the group.

Trying to clear up such profound misunderstandings 16 years later is like sifting sand, Aka tells him. “The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.”

The most beautiful, moving encounter of the pilgrimage takes place with Kuro, who has married and permanently settled in Finland. She and Tsukuru play out an intense, ritualized scene of homesickness and loss – love lost, trust lost, life lost. Kuro tells Tsukuru that she loved him in high school, though romance was not one of the rules of the group. Her confession and encouragement help build his fragile self-confidence.

“I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity,” he says earlier in the novel. “Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.”

Kuro’s reply: “Let’s say you are an empty vessel. So what? What’s wrong with that? … So why not be a completely beautiful vessel?”

As he leaves her cabin, realizing that he will never see her again, “Sorrow surged then, silently, like water inside him. A formless, transparent sorrow. A sorrow he could touch, yet something that was also far away, out of reach.”

Murakami masterfully captures the longing we have for the distant harmony of the past. As in many of his novels, music plays a major role in expressing this longing. And as Tsukuru meditates on the mystery of his fate, he thinks that “Our lives are like a complex musical score. … Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing, sixteenth and thirty-second notes and other strange signs. It’s next to impossible to correctly interpret these, and even if you could, and then could transpose them into the correct sounds, there’s no guarantee that people would correctly understand, or appreciate, the meaning therein.”

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” resounds with an exactitude of diction, deep chords of emotion and an aesthetic precision rare in today’s fiction. Expertly translated, it will rank with the best of Murakami’s work.

Whether it will sell 1 million copies in a week, of course, remains to be seen. But numbers cannot detract from its excellence; it will certainly keep Murakami’s name in the running for the Nobel Prize in Literature and leave us eagerly awaiting his next masterpiece.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or

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