Lonely, adrift and rudderless: Haruki Murakami tells it straight this time
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, is a decidedly slimmer, more concentrated affair than his last, the baggy behemoth 1Q84. His protagonist Tsukuru comes from the same mould as many a Murakami male: an unexceptional, clean-living thirty-something adrift and alone in Tokyo.
Tsukuru has been a rudderless “empty vessel” since his four closest high-school friends banished him from their close-knit group without any explanation 16 years ago. When he meets and falls for Sara, his confidence returns, and along with it a reason for living. But before she can commit to a relationship, she needs him to confront and overcome his demons. After paving the way with some initial sleuthing, she urges him to track down his former friends and learn the truth behind their decision to cut him off and shut him out.
Murakami’s 14th work of fiction is a curious one – not because it is infused with the author’s trademark strangeness but because it isn’t. The bizarre flights of fancy that made previous work soar have been dispensed with. We get nightmares, meditations on death, hands with six fingers and now and again “a reality imbued with all the qualities of a dream”, but otherwise Murakami reins in his magic realism to tell it straight.
In doing so, he takes a considerable risk. Much of the appeal in reading him derives from his ability to brighten bland moments and humdrum existences with flashes of that wonderful weirdness (perhaps the best example being The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in which a series of surreal incidents is triggered after a man loses his cat). Stripped of those flashes, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is forced to rely entirely on its plot and its characters – many of whom have humdrum existences. Its hero, a trainspottery designer of railway stations, knows he is going nowhere and admits to being “middling, pallid”. Does his dullness taint the whole novel?
Fortunately not, and mainly because Murakami has been here before with the equally conventional but artistically accomplished Norwegian Wood. In both novels the postmodern trickery is downsized to allow for a streamlined, unimpeded narrative that taps quicker into the traumatised hearts of characters who are hamstrung by nostalgic longing. Disposing of oddities also helps Murakami cast a melancholic mood over key thoughts and proceedings.
A reflective piece from Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage suite serves as a leitmotif to accompany and heighten Tsukuru’s regrets. Music suffuses Murakami’s work, but here and in Norwegian Wood it plays a larger role, with the author not only utilising the textures and rhythms of famous compositions to orchestrate his characters’ emotions but also appropriating their titles for his own books.
Tsukuru’s years of pilgrimage take him from self-doubt to self-fulfillment. Some stages are unsettling, others intriguing. Tension mounts as he visits and questions each of the friends who ditched him, to the extent that the book comes to resemble if not a fact-finding police procedural then a puzzle like Murakami’s Sherlock Holmes-tinged early novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. At Tsukuru’s journey’s end – a final reckoning in Finland – he gets the answers he has craved, but in true Murakami style not everything is resolved.
Murakami speckles his novel with deft touches. Tsukuru is colourless in character but also in name. His old friends have colourful surnames: the two boys are “red pine” and “blue sea”; the family names of the two girls mean “white root” and “black field”.
Haida, his shady college friend, is Mr Gray. In stark contrast, “Tsukuru”, we are told, translates as “to make or build”. Such an allegorical approach puts us in mind of another pilgrimage and one of the most famous allegories of all, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki as allegory helps account for some of Murakami’s overly simplistic observations. Tokyo is described as big and fast-paced. Its railway lines are “like a web spread out over the city”. Sometimes, though, that calibrated plainness borders on banality: coffee is consistently delicious – “It had a fresh aroma, and was the perfect temperature.” Only at the end does Murakami break with this and switch to revelatory prose that chimes with his hero’s deeper understanding. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru realises. “They are, instead, linked deeply through 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.”
Murakami’s tale of friendship and self-discovery sold more than a million copies in its first week in his native land. It may be more populist and less mind-expanding than past offerings but there is more than enough here to entertain and entrance.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.