Books: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage | “A Burst of Color”

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I mentioned in my 2014 review that I had hoped to read more by Haruki Murakami in the upcoming year. Thankfully, I continued to mention this around family, so one of my Christmas gifts was Murakami’s latest book. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was a highly anticipated book before it came out. In Japan, the book had become one of the fastest selling books on the Japanese version of Amazon and sold over one million copies in its first month. It topped several U.S. bookseller lists, including The New York Times.As someone who had read Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was somewhat excited to see what he would do in this book. It was about half the length of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I was curious if it would have some of the same elements in that book. Thus, with my new hardback edition in hand, I dove into Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, wondering if this tale would be filled with as many wells, cats, and enigmatic women as Murakami novels were known for. It wasn’t exactly traditional, but I was very much interested in what I read.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage follows the 36 year-old protagonist, a railroad station designer who lives in Tokyo. He tells his new girlfriend, Sara, about a group of friends he had in middle school, and how they were the tightest and happiest group of people he ever knew. However, when Tsukuru returned from college for summer vacation, he received a call from one of them informing him that they wanted nothing more to do with him, forbidding him from seeing or speaking to them ever again. Sensing that this event has left her boyfriend very emotionally damaged, Sara suggests Tsukuru track down his former friends and try to figure out exactly what happened sixteen years earlier, in hopes that this emotional closure will allow Tsukuru and Sara to go to the next stage with their relationship.

The novel goes back and forth between Tsukuru’s youth and current life, showing his life with his friends and how he lives as an adult. We get a real sense of community among Tsukuru and his five friends, from the nicknames they shared (all of his friends had a surname that contained a character for a color, such as Akamatsu [Aka=Red] and Shirane [Shiro=White], while Tazaki has no color, leaving him the “colorless” member), and we also see how devastated the expulsion left him. The book opens with an emotionally devastated Tsukuru contemplating dying months after being abandoned, and while he no longer actively thinks about dying, his time with Sara shows how the emotional scars make it difficult for him to mature and settle down.

I’m going to be completely honest here: the first part of the book really messed me up. Right off the bat, Murakami wants you to know exactly how messed up the protagonist is because of this event, and spends roughly 100 pages doing so. With the character of Tsukuru Tazaki, you realize that this was a man who put so much faith and trust in these four people. When he loses it all, you can see that he becomes full of self-doubt and fear about how his relationships will go. We see him have a very close relationship with another person, but you can tell that most of that friendship hinges Tsukuru believing that this guy will want to hang out with him. We also see how this comes to affect his relationships with his family, his coworkers, and his romantic relationships, with Sara being his first serious attempt at connecting with a woman.I think what’s fascinating about this tale is that I feel Murakami abandons a lot of what he is used to using in his novels in an attempt to make this story more universal. People at times do feel completely isolated and do have feelings of low self worth when their relationships, whether platonic or romantic, change. Murakami could have had more of a magical realist touch to this story, whether it be a character having supernatural abilities or a weird natural event happening, but chose not to. Now, there are some weird events in this story, but they’re mostly kept to dreams and fantasies, where there can still be a separation from reality but that can be explained as “dream logic” or something similar.

I feel like there’s a lot to understand from this story because there’s a lot of sense to be made from the actions of the characters. Not everything in this book is explained, but from what we do learn, we get a sense of why the characters made the decisions they did. Although there’s never a true explanation for why the group broke up (there’s a solid one, but details are missing to prevent the characters from truly finding closure on the matter), the characters are able to explain why they made the choices they did, and even acknowledge whether or not they were right to do so. The novel is quick to make it clear why this plan failed so miserably and how it affected all five members of the group well into their adulthood.

What saves this book from being a complete pile of misery, regret, and cynicism is that there is at least a sense that some good could come out of it. The five friends all have varying degrees of success in their adult life, whether it be in their careers or family lives. They’re all aware of what was lost, but you do get an idea that they can do something about it now. Yes, not everything can be the way it was in the past, but there’s still a chance to grow from the experience and make amends.

This book was very easy to read and very engaging. I wanted to see where Tsukuru would go next and what happened to his friends. I found everyone to be pretty human and sympathetic, something that I don’t find often in literature. I’ve come to see how a lot of Japanese fiction tends to lack complete closure to its narratives, as well as lacking traditional tropes in their story. This was a tale with no traditional three act structure or even a villain. If anything, the real antagonist of the story is poor communication and self-doubt. The group couldn’t completely trust each other despite how close they were, and because of all those doubts and worries, they let it destroy their bond and any potential future the five of them could have had together.

I’m very happy I read this book, especially since the hype surrounding it seemed to support what I read. If anything, I’m glad I’m starting to see the kind of range present in Murakami’s work, from his really bizarre stories to his more realistic ones. It’s making me see a diverse form of storytelling, and it’s starting to become something I hope to be influenced by later in life as I try to write more. Stories like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage are ones I hope to remember as I try to tell stories about people and the complications of life, and I hope other people are as well.

This review originally appeared in Quail Bell Magazine.

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