Found in Translation: ‘The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage’

This year’s most hotly anticipated novel in translation was Haruki Murakami’s The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami has gained something of a cult status, and The Colorless Tsukuru sold over 1 million copies in its first week of release in Japan alone. Here, he returns to a world more familiar from his earlier Norwegian Wood than his last sprawling epic, IQ84. Regular Murakami readers will not be disappointed, for all his trademarks are here in full force; the bridge between dreams and reality, a fascination with sexual relationships, music as a unifying and purifying force. For those who have never read Murakami, this novel is perhaps a perfect introduction; it is not quite as surreal as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and is altogether more introverted than a lot of his previous work.

The narrative is tightly constructed around Tsukuru Tazaki’s life and perspective, an intense study of one man’s journey of self-discovery. From the third page we are told the premise from which the novel proceeds:

‘The reason why death had such a hold on Tsukuru Tazaki was clear. One day his four closest friends, the friends he’d known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again.’

Even without the impetus of finding a missing cat, this immediately places Tsukuru within Murakami’s ‘questing male protagonist’ mould. His friends’ rejection has left him believing that he is ‘colourless’, the member of the group with no personality, unable to sustain meaningful relationships. Subsequently, prompted by his girlfriend Sara, he decides to visit his estranged friends to establish what made them reject him.

Of course, as with many of Murakami’s previous protagonists, Tsukuru is only colourless in his own imagination, not to others. Unfortunately to anyone who has read Murakami before, the outcome of his ‘years of pilgrimage’ (taken from Liszt’s piano suite of the same name, from which ‘Le mal du pays’ provides something of a leitmotif throughout the novel) is immediately predictable. There is a sense of revisiting old territory about Colorless; my primary criticism of this book is that it is too familiar. That said, these recognisable narratives and themes are of a quality that still stand head and shoulders above most literature being written today. Murakami dares to tackle difficult ideas and proves that they can be accessibly explained whilst losing none of their potency; the tale of the jazz pianist who ponders upon the nature of logic and belief being such a case in point, as well as Tsukuru’s discussions of free will with his friend Haida. Particularly intriguing is Murakami’s exploration of the boundary between realities and dreaming. The consequences of Tsukuru’s actions whilst dreaming seem to be of heavier import than those whilst awake, and Murakami leads us to moral questions concerning our behaviour and thought processes in dreams. If we are the same person when asleep and awake, is dreaming of an action the same as intending to carry it out; what if we acted upon something we dreamed? What if the two are indistinguishable?

Tsukuru’s relationship with his girlfriend Sara is curious; her presence is predominantly as a plot catalyst (it is she who encourages him to contact his old classmates), but even in her brief appearances throughout the novel she allows Murakami a platform from which to expand upon constants within human relationships, constants which illuminate the book’s main themes. The most compelling of these is the possibility of temporalities merging, with so little divide between past, present, and future that it seems that a linear conception of time must be rejected.

I enjoyed The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki a little less than Murakami’s earlier, more surreal works such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There are no significant narrative surprises, and very little is left to the reader’s imagination to piece together. Nevertheless, Murakami leaves the reader with plenty to consider after finishing the final page. The clarity with which he paints Tsukuru’s world and character is extraordinary, and it is to translator Philip Gabriel’s credit that he manages to craft such a compelling and intricate novel from the original Japanese. It is surely one of the best novels published this year.

L. C. Broad

‘The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki’ is available from most bookstores, RRP £20.00. More information is available from Haruki Murakami’s website.

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