Friday, September 19, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014)

          My husband Dickson belongs to a book club, and last week we hosted his group’s bi-monthly meeting, when six or eight or sometimes ten literary men gather to drink beer, discuss books and eat whatever snacks the host has kindly provided. For this meeting they had read, at my suggestion, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, because the club is mostly made up of runners and Rabbit Angstrom’s story has a decidedly athletic feel. Even though I didn’t attend the meeting (it’s a boys’ club, so I stayed upstairs), when I came down after they were done, the conversation had turned to the newest Murakami – a far cry from Rabbit and his troubled relationship with Janice – and the excitement many club members had about reading his new work.
            I had already finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage three days after I bought the book, and the members of Dickson’s club asked me what I thought. Was it as much of a slog as 1Q84? Was it as otherworldly as A Wild Sheep Chase or Kafka on the Shore? Or was it quieter, like Norwegian Wood, or Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. So much of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is like much of Murakami’s other writing, thick with descriptions of simple meals and lonely men and strange, often very strange, sex – yet other parts of it also felt fresh and new. In sum, it was a decent new book from a man who has perfected his own subtle style. Colorless won’t make anyone turn away from Murakami, even if they’ve never read him before, and it’s engaging enough for his diehard fans. I don’t consider the three days I read it misspent.
As we sat in my living room discussing Murakami, we realized that, between us, we had read almost all of his work, and there were things we could all recite as commonalities between his books. In an interview from 2011, Murakami told a Spanish audience that he was a lonely child, and the three things that filled his quiet hours were “cats, books and music.” You can see the vapor trails of each of these things in the work Murakami has since produced, as each is filled with those reoccurring themes playing distinct roles in his characters’ lives.
In this sense, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is no different. There are mentions of cats and their tiny, silent feet, and music, particularly the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s piano solo “Le mal du pays.” Books, whether the characters are active readers or not, also merit mention time and time again, whether in descriptions of people’s bookshelves or as ways to pass the time. And, as usual, there are descriptions of the other things that constantly fill Murakami’s world: of simple meals stirfried with whatever is in the fridge, of physical deformities (six fingers on each hand, like in Wind Up Bird), and of physical activity, this time spent in the pool. There are the now-customary discussions of sexual proclivities that border on the phantasmagoric, but are always told in Murakami’s simple, matter-of-fact voice. And, like Tengo in 1Q84, Tsukuru’s sexual dreams merge frighteningly into reality, blurring the lines (and the effects) between what happens in bed, awake or asleep.
It is, like much of his work, the story of a single man, one searching for something he doesn’t understand, and who may find love or may screw it up. (My bet is usually that he’ll screw it up.) But Tsukuru Tazaki is more lonely than most, and that’s what makes Colorless a remarkable book.
Tsukuru Tazaki lives alone in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but you’d hardly know it from Murakami’s descriptions of the place. Except for the train stations where Tsukuru spends most of his time (he’s an engineer working to make stations more streamlined and accessible), Tsukuru rarely participates in social life and other people rarely infiltrate his world.
Tsukuru seems to prefer it that way. Save for a friend named Haida and a slowly-blossoming romance with a woman named Sara (who may or may not also be dating an older, mustachioed gentleman), Tsukuru lives, sleeps, eats and exercises alone. And, alone, his life is no big party either. He spent the bulk of his time in college contemplating death, not eating, barely drinking, attending classes to pass the time. Now, at age 36, he’s thin and stark. He eats like a bird and never finishes an entire beer. He knows what he is but can’t seem to change it: the man is boring even to himself.
What could have caused such a sad, desolate life? Herein lies this book’s charm: no one becomes a Tsukuru Tazaki unless something truly traumatic has happened, and Tsukuru’s trauma is dramatic indeed. After his first year of college in Tokyo, Tsukuru is abandoned by his high school friends, all four of whom remained in Tsukuru’s hometown Nagoya after graduation. This group, which had originally numbered five, was once so close they saw themselves as fingers on a single hand. So it came as an abrupt shock when they summarily dismissed Tsukuru with a single phone call, telling him that they never wanted to see or hear from him again, with no explanation as to how or why. And Tsukuru being Tsukuru, he didn’t feel the need to ask.
The title’s reference to Tsukuru being “colorless” comes from the nicknames of these four friends. The two men in the group were nicknamed Red and Blue (or Aka and Ao in Japanese), while the two women were nicknamed White and Black (Shiro and Kuro), with all of the colors culled from their family names. Tsukuru, whose name is a homophone for the Japanese word meaning “to build or make,” has no color; he is colorless, though his engineering degree makes a kind of onomastic sense.
The “pilgrimage” of the title is also apt, since Tsukuru goes on one of these as well. It’s Sara who pushes Tsukuru to contact his old friends (would a guy like Tsukuru ever do that on his own?) when she realizes that there’s something stuck in him that cannot be undone until Tsukuru has learned why he was dismissed. So on this pilgrimage he goes, first back to Nagoya, and then on, surprisingly, to Finland. He contacts each of his old friends in turn to learn why and how, years ago, they could so quickly and completely abandon one of their own.
I won’t reveal the outcomes of Tsukuru’s pilgrimage since that would defeat the purpose of reading Murakami’s book, but I will suggest that, as Murakami ages, we see him treading on familiar ground while, at the same time, invoking something relatively new. Reading Colorless will feel familiar, like reading Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 or Kafka or Norwegian Wood. But parts of it will also feel thrillingly unique, fresh in the increasing span of his decades-long oeuvre. For example, Murakami has never written so movingly about friendship, especially since so many of his protagonists are often alone, and, despite her possible ongoing affair with another man, Sara is one of Murakami’s most competent and least-batshit-crazy female characters yet. It would be lovely to see more of this real emotion explored, especially for the women who are still a minority in Murakami’s world.
But Colorless may also be a sign of the times, or at least a sign of Murakami’s ever-increasing age (he turned 65 earlier this year). In Running, Murakami described the “wells” in his mind, and how a new one must be tapped for each book to emerge. He feared, in his 2008 memoir, that his reserves would eventually run dry, and that at some desperate point the drilling would cease and his career as a writer would dry up as well. The good news is that this clearly hasn’t happened yet. The bad news, however, is that many of the same wells are being used, often at the expense of his writing anything completely exciting or new.
Like Kurt Vonnegut (blessings upon his name), Murakami is getting repetitive with age. (Did A Man Without a Country contain anything we hadn’t read before?) The direct lines between Murakami’s life and fiction are clearer now than they used to be, and themes forming between books (cats, books, music, sex, stir fry, physical deformities, dreams-with-real-consequences, men stuck in wells) are getting easier to track. Aomame, the assassin-protagonist of 1Q84, is clearly based off of Murakami’s own physical therapist, whom he described at length in Running. (A tiny woman who stretches stiff gym-going men? Who uses surprising levels of force to bend and pull stubborn muscles into submission? Who toils and works until both the masseuse and the massaged are drenched in sweat from exertion? Wait a second, we’ve seen this before!) We can see Running’s real gym masseuse in Tokyo transform into Aomame in 1Q84 in the same way we can see a woman with six fingers pop up in Wind-Up Bird and again in Colorless, or in the same way Tengo’s orgasm with Fuka-Eri in 1Q84 results in Aomame getting pregnant while Tsukuru’s dream of sex with Shiro may have resulted in something strangely tragic happening to her in real life (it’s a spoiler alert if I say what this is). In Murakami’s world, the same weird story often gets told, but each time it’s revealed in a markedly different way.
Like the bulk of his characters, Murakami feels most comfortable when treading regular ground, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading it every time. Ultimately, what I liked the most about Colorless was how it showed Murakami evolving as a person. Colorless was clearly written by a middle-aged man who has his own struggles with aging and death, and who understands that the past, no matter how painful, can never be completely changed. His characters are getting deeper too: Tsukuru is a thoughtful guy, whose pilgrimage (even if it wasn’t initially his idea) is done with a sense of purpose and commitment. He’s less swept along by the winds of fate, as so many of Murakami’s characters have been before, than he is actively trying to understand his own past, and his confrontations with his former friends are deliberate and calm.
Perhaps this is suggestive of Murakami’s own more purposeful track in life, or at least of the maturity that comes with advancing age. Would a younger Murakami have written a character like Tsukuru, who willingly confronts those who unceremoniously dismissed him years before? Would anyone under the age of 65 be comfortable doing such a thing? For me, at less than half of Murakami’s age, the idea of confronting those who hurt me in the past is terrifying, but perhaps I’m still too young to be judicious about such things. I’d rather lick my wounds than have the cojones to understand why people were once dicks, and this could be the difference between a novel from a 31-year-old versus an aging baby boomer like Murakami. Despite the book returning to his ever-present themes, a younger Murakami could never have written Tsukuru. He could only appear from a more mature, evolved voice.
Ultimately, despite treading this familiar ground, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will hardly disappoint any Murakami devotee. You can’t separate a writer from his or her themes, and why would you want to? After all, there are probably a dozen literature Ph.D.s whose degrees wouldn’t exist if Murakami didn’t write the way he does. And the world Murakami has created is a good one, a place that millions of readers regularly like to call home. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the things we see can expect to see, Murakami has created a pleasant, often exciting and certainly always perplexing place, where readers can walk on cat-like feet, alone in moments of quiet contemplation, while cooking a simple meal out of whatever they can find in the fridge.
-Emily Dufton

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