Are you familiar with the works of John Irving? Then you’ll be familiar with the works of Haruki Murakami—because this is perhaps the antithesis of Irving in many ways. Both authors produce profoundly character-driven novels, often centred on young men trying to find their way through a life clouded by attachments to a deep past. Whereas Irving seems determined to wrap his characters in layers of the complex darkness of the human soul, Murakami instead proffers to his characters hope for a more optimistic resolution.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is not difficult to follow, and it is very moving and very reassuring. It’s the kind of novel I can sit down and read for hours without a break, if I have the time, and despite almost nothing ever happening in the modern sense we spoiled readers are accustomed to … I wanted to keep reading, to find out what would not happen next. We talk about character- versus plot-driven fiction a lot. Like any categories, these are generalizations, and there are always exceptions and shades of grey and fine lines. But I compare Murakami to Irving above because I think the two are similar in that they practise the art of character-driven stories almost lacking in plot.
I love the title of this book. Murakami wastes no time explaining the first part: Tsukuru means “to make” or “to create” (depending on which Chinese character one uses to write it). Alone among his four friends, Tsukuru does not have a name that contains a colour—hence, he is “colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” when all the others can be called by their colours. This sense of difference becomes a defining aspect of Tsukuru’s relationship with this circle of friends, who exile him totally and without explanation a few months after he leaves Nagoya to go to school in Tokyo. Despite achieving his goal of becoming a railway station designer/engineer, Tsukuru feels that his lack of colour is a symbol of how bland or uninteresting he is. As the years roll by, he develops only one lasting friendship that ends almost as abruptly and mysteriously as the one with his high school friends did. He has some girlfriends, but nothing serious.
It’s interesting that Murakami presents Tsukuru in this way. By many external measures, Tsukuru is a successful individual. He has a good job, and in fact, his dream job—unlike some of his friends, he never compromised nor wavered in what he wanted. Although he doesn’t have close friendships, he emphasizes that he is alone but not lonely—a difference I can definitely appreciate. Yet Tsukuru seems to feel there is an emptiness in his life, something missing. That’s why Sara is successful in motivating him to reconnect with his four friends after decades of silence to find out why they exiled him. It’s not that she’s being nosey and manipulating him—everything else Murakami shows us about Tsukuru’s life shows us that he needs this closure.
I appreciate how simple Murakami makes it for Tsukuru to find and talk to these friends. There is no drama about hunting them down. When they see him after all this time, they receive him neutrally or warmly, with no animosity or displeasure, despite the circumstances that led them to exile him. This simplicity allows Tsukuru and his friends to talk instead about the truly meaningful parts of their lives. In so doing, Murakami comments on the choices we make that shape who we become. I’m sure there are aspects here that I’m missing because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese society. From my point of view as a Westerner, however, it looks like Murakami explores how each of the friends prioritized different aspects of their lives, which has led them to where they are today.
In a sense, we all have the “years of pilgrimage” that Tsukuru does, though most of us do not experience the same kind of abrupt and painful cutoff with our high school associates. Delving into the reason for this exile is the most sensitive part of the book. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes disturbing, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the way Murakami deals with it. Time and secondhand narration muddle the story until it becomes something very different from what actually happened. But I keep telling myself the reality of what happened is beside the point, because this is not Shiro’s story. If it were, then matters would be different—but we would also have access to perspectives and information we don’t get here. No, this is Tsukuru’s story. And it seems like what Murakami is trying to say here is that sometimes your relationships with people change through no fault or action of your own; rather, they or their other relationships dictate that they take steps that might be to your detriment. Ao and Aka’s discomfort with how they treated Tsukuru is clear; Kuro’s attempt to frame it in terms of Tsukuru’s “strength” demonstrates her strong sense of responsibility and regret for what happened.
In the end, we don’t get much closure though. We find out why Tsukuru was exiled. We don’t learn more about his aborted friendship with Haida, however, and his nascent relationship with Sara remains up in the air. I remember approaching the end very rapidly, the width of pages remaining diminishing with frightening speed even as I realized that there is no way Murakami could wrap things up in time. As the narrative itself slowed and thickened, as Tsukuru and Sara seemed to stand still in their respective lives, I realized that Murakami had no intention of giving me closure. He wanted to leave it open, to let us conjecture and fantasize about what could be and what might be. I can respect that, even though as a reader, I kind of wish he had just ended it happily ever after. So it goes.
Bottom line: Murakami makes writing novels like this look effortless. Seen from a distance, there is almost nothing here … everything is gossamer and glitter. But substance does lie beneath. I can’t pretend I can fully articulate why I enjoyed this novel so much. It’s just a very fulfilling experience, both reassuring and discomforting, clever and thoughtful yet also relaxing in its simplicity. I know a lot of people talk about how Murakami’s stories are repetitive and trope-ridden—and after three novels, all I can say is I must not be paying enough attention, because I don’t see it, or at least, not on the same level as Irving. Regardless, he certainly tells interesting stories.