Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” begins with a simple premise: A Tokyo railroad engineer, the Tsukuru Tazaki of the novel’s title, unable to get over the summer of his sophomore year in college, when for no reason he can determine he was cut off by his close-knit group of high school friends. This unit of five was once inseparable; “We had several unspoken rules,” he explains, “one of them being As much as we possibly can, we do things together, all five of us.”
The betrayal sends Tsukuru into a spiral. “It was as if,” Murakami writes, “he were sleepwalking through life, as if he had already died but not yet noticed it.” It’s a condition that lingers into adulthood. “Though he lacked a striking personality,” the author continues, “or any qualities that made him stand out, and despite always aiming for what was average, the middle of the road, there was (or seemed to be) something about him that wasn’t exactly normal, something that set him apart. And this contradiction continued to perplex and confuse him, from his boyhood all the way to the present, when he was thirty-six years old.”
In some sense, such a setup recalls Murakami’s 1987 novel “Norwegian Wood,” which also involves someone in his 30s reassessing his experience as a student, or his early story “The Silence,” in which a man who received the silent treatment in high school reflects that “it’s impossible, in my own mind, to believe in people. … When I think of these things … I wake my wife up and I hold on to her and cry.”
There is a rawness, a vulnerability, to these characters, a sense that the surface of the world is thin, and the border between inner and outer life, between existence as we know it and something far more elusive, is easily effaced.
“One of them no longer existed here,” Tsukuru recalls of one of his friends, who died in adulthood. “She was no more than a handful of white ash. Her thoughts, her opinions, her feelings, her hopes and dreams — all of them had vanished without a trace. All that remained were memories of her. Her long, straight black hair, her shapely fingers on the keyboard, her smooth, white, graceful (yet strangely eloquent) calves, her playing of Franz Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays.’”
The same, it goes without saying, is true of Tsukuru, with one exception: Since he’s still breathing, he can do something to help himself. Urged on by his girlfriend, Sara — “You need to come face-to-face with the past,” she tells him, “not as some naïve, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” — he reaches back across the years to make contact with his former friends. The survivors have aged into the complexities of adulthood: marriage, children, career, long-term responsibility. Only Tsukuru remains relatively unencumbered, rootless, as if he were drifting across the surface of his life.
Early in the book, he remembers a story told by a college friend, in which a jazz pianist accepts a talisman, “a death token, if you will” that guarantees he will die within two months. The upside is that he has become intensely present, joined to the world in a way he has never known before.
“At the point when you agree to take on death,” he says, “you gain an extraordinary capacity. A special power, you could call it. … You have to experience it to understand. One thing I can say, though, is that once you see that true sight with your own eyes, the world you’ve lived in up till now will look flat and insipid. … You leave the boundary of your physical body behind to become a metaphysical being. You become intuition. It’s at once a wonderful sensation and a hopeless one, because, almost at the last minute, you realize how shallow and superficial your life has been.”
The salient idea isn’t whether this is believable; in “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” that’s an open question, as it would be in life. Rather, it is the necessity of engagement — not despite but because of the fact that everything is fleeting, that it all evaporates.
This is where the novel elevates, becoming more than just a story but rather a meditation on everything the narrative provokes. How do we connect, or reconnect, to those around us but also to the very essence of ourselves? Where, in the flatness of contemporary society — which in this novel, as in so much of his work, Murakami evokes with a masterful understatement — do we find some point of intersection, some lasting depth?
If at the start of his career Murakami could be a little glib, a little (yes) superficial when it came to such considerations, that is no longer the case. Here, as in his last book, the magnificent “1Q84,” as well as “Kafka on the Shore,” “After the Quake,” and even “Underground” (a nonfiction account of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway), he has opened his vision, his sensibility, to reflect the distances implicit in being alive.
That’s the purpose of the Liszt piece, which recurs like a motif, even giving the novel its title: “Le mal du pays” is part of a suite called “Years of Pilgrimage.” “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Murakami writes. “They are, instead, linked deeply though their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
In the end, it also lies at the root of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which is a novel less of wandering than of integration, although what this means is difficult to pin down. Does Tsukuru come to any kind of closure? The answer is: Yes and no. The past, even revisited, can never be reclaimed.
“Our lives are like a complex musical score,” he thinks. “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.”
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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $25.95