HARUKI Murakami is not only the greatest contemporary Japanese novelist but a global literary phenomenon. Loved by the young as well as the old and boasting a diverse readership, he has achieved what few writers have managed. His latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, sold a million copies in Japan in the first week of its release.

Despite Murakami’s immense popularity, it is very hard to categorise his works as they reflect elements of various genres. He can write in an empirical prose as well as transform that concrete reality into a phantasmagoric tale inhibited by talking cats, two moons, bizarre dreams and alternative universes. What makes his books truly special is their ability to make you forget your immediate surroundings: once you start reading a Murakami book you’ll find yourself unable to put it down. You cannot predict the course the story is going to take but the setting and characters feel so familiar to avid Murakami fans that they feel at home, devouring every word he writes.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki opens with the 20-year-old Tsukuru Tazakai on the verge of self-destruction; “all he could think about was dying.” Tsukuru is our typical Murakami protagonist — an unmindfully intelligent, introverted young man in impeccable clothes, living a simple life. Other essentials are a refined taste for music and knowledge of good cooking.

Tsukuru is unable to make sense of the world without his four best friends. Soon enough it is revealed that when Tsukuru, who was studying at a university in Tokyo, went to his hometown in Nagoya during a term break, all four of his closest friends refused to talk to him and banished him from their perfectly harmonious group. One of them told him to never contact them again and when Tsukuru asked the reason he was told he would know if he thought about it.

The pain of being abandoned rips Tsukuru apart: “If there had been a door within reach that led straight to death, he wouldn’t have hesitated to push it open, without a second thought, as if it were just a part of ordinary life.” But he is afraid of pursuing the truth which he thinks wouldn’t be able to save him.

The narrative then shifts to the present where Tsukuru, now a 36-year-old bachelor, works for the design department of a railway station company and leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo. He has recently met an attractive and intelligent woman named Sara. Unlike Tsukuru, Sara is a pragmatic and strong-willed woman with whom he cannot help opening up about his past, something he has never done before. She tells him that ignoring the past can be dangerous because “You can hide memories, suppress them, but you can’t erase the history that produced them,” and destroying history is like “destroying yourself.” The past, she seems to believe, had made an existential hole in his life that’s still gnawing at his heart.

Moreover, she is certain that as long as he has “unresolved emotional issues” they won’t be able to be truly together; he needs to make peace with himself by finding out the truth about why his closest friends left him.

Sara finds out the whereabouts of Tsukuru’s friends and tells him that he’s the only one who can do something about it. Tsukuru decides to heed this advice for two reasons: firstly, his visceral thirst for truth, and secondly, his new-found adoration for Sara.

Long before Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was released I was intrigued by its strange title. However, when I started reading it I got my answer soon enough: ‘colourless’ is both a figurative and literal qualifier. All four of Tsukuru’s friends have last names that incorporate a different colour while Tsukuru’s last name, Tazaki, does not allude to any colour. This coincidence makes him feel alienated from his colourful friends who have unique and quirky personalities in contrast to Tsukuru’s who “had no deep interest in the arts, no hobby or special skill.” Even long after he lost contact with his friends, he feels something essential is missing from his life: “everything about him was middling, pallid and lacking in colour.”

“The years of pilgrimage” is a reference to Franz Liszt’s piano masterwork ‘Années de pèlerinage’. However, Tsukuru’s pilgrimage is also literal as his search for truth does not only take him back to his hometown but also to a different country. The rest of the novel focuses on his search for his old friends and their subsequent meeting, taking on the shape of a mild suspense novel with decent plot twists and turns. Like many of his previous works, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a kind of quest novel in which the hero goes on a journey of self-discovery.

Murakami, however, is far from a conformist when it comes to the craft of narration. He not only leaves many questions unanswered but also gives us an open ending. I’ve always heard reviews of extreme nature when it comes to Murakami. If there are people who worship everything he has written, then there are those who find him rather distasteful. It is partly because he defies the set notions of both genre and fiction and does not always write as clearly as they might like, having developed his own narrative repertoire of intertextuality.

Although Murakami’s books are often described as gloomy and pessimistic, given their obsession with suicide, this is a misrepresentation because the simple idea at the centre of his works is that the fate of characters is linked to their own choices. It seems that he believes that we can learn to accept ourselves, to see one another as we really are and make peace with the truth, no matter how contradictive. “As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves,” we are told in quintessential Murakami wisdom.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a deeply moving novel that reveals in intense detail and remarkable characterisation the irrevocable effects of traumatic adolescent experiences. And along this quest Tsukuru slowly emerges as a rather colourful individual.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

(NOVEL)

By Haruki Murakami

Knopf, US

ISBN 0385352107

400pp.