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Aloof, Quiet, and Dissonant: On Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

By posted at 12:00 pm on August 11, 2014 9

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Haruki Murakami, perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, eccentric juggernaut with a penchant for classical music, cats, and the quotidian lameness of life in the modern world, has returned with yet another occasionally charming, often frustrating novel. Unlike Kafka on the Shore (2002), arguably Murakami’s most accomplished realization of his aesthetic, however, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is considerably flawed, even when judged within the strange and disjointed context of the author’s previous work.

We meet Tsukuru Tazaki when he is in the throes of suicidal depression. He had been an integral member of a group of five creepily close friends, each of whose names contained a color except Tsukuru’s. One day, without warning or explanation, he is banished from this group. None of his former companions so much as answers a phone call for the next 16 years. Alongside this, a separate narrative of Tsukuru’s life in the present as an engineer of train stations follows our bland hero as he gets to know Sara, an efficient, sensible professional who, like most of the women in Murakami’s fiction, possesses a beauty that strains metaphor and breasts worth remarking upon. Sara, like any reasonable person, is amazed that Tsukuru has never once tried to discover why his friends exiled him. She refuses to sleep with him until he does so. “You mean you can’t make love with me?…Because I have some — emotional issues?” Tsukuru asks her over dinner during one of the novel’s many exasperating conversations. She responds, “That’s right…But I think they’re the kind of problems you can overcome, if you really make up your mind to do so. Just like you’d set about repairing a defect in a station.”

That remarkably short-sighted idea — that everything from impotence to “deep-seated emotional issues” (variously described as feeling like “a sudden, stabbing pain,” “swallow[ing] a hard lump of cloud,” and a “silent silver pain”), can be solved like a black and white Rubik’s Cube — is how Murakami initiates the quest structure in his narratives. It is a good trick, too. There is something relentlessly compelling about following a sympathetic character on a journey to find the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle du jour, whether those pieces are lost relatives, unuttered truths, or, I don’t know, horcruxes. The object itself does not matter so much as its status as an answer, both to the literal questions posed by the plot and to the narrative as a whole, an answer that resolves the suspension that the book comprises and allows it to end.

This structure (problem + answer = resolution) is distinctly at odds with the inordinate violence that Murakami often employs, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. We are supposed to believe that the world of the novel is a charming one in which adults say things to each other like, “If you had told me then how you felt, of course I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend,” and, “Thinking freely about things means…letting pure logic soar free, giving a natural life to logic,” but also a graphic place filled with “pubic hair as wet as a rain forest,” “modestly sized breasts,” and the occasional brutal rape. The fundamental problem of desire — its unpredictably, its curious tendency to resist satisfaction — does not disrupt Murakami’s world of kindly old people and ancient magic and beige dialogue about the nature of reality. “Like me, his favorite thing is mulling over abstract ideas,” one character says at Tsukuru, and we get the impression that that may be the author’s inclination as well.

All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style — the supernatural, the uncanny, the grotesque, music (this time, it’s “Le mal du pays,” from Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage), metaphor, sex, philosophy — all are present in Colorless Tsukuru, but for perhaps the first time in his work, they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work. There is nothing intrinsically bad about each of those elements, but at this point anyone who has read an article about the author will expect them. If they were employed in the novel to some effect, they would seem more like load-bearing columns than filigrees. As it stands, however, they largely serve to alienate.

It is hard to sympathize with a character like Tsukuru, who seems to have arisen out of a writing prompt that challenges the writer to create someone with no personality at all. He is the hero, our eyes and ears, but he is mostly hidden from the reader. We never learn too much about what really went on in the group of friends from which he was banished (“They just hung out someplace, and talked for hours.”), so the life-ending misery his expulsion causes seems incongruous. As a result, the redemption he finds on his quest does not ring particularly true either.

This is not to mention the problem of femininity, which is surely the greatest weakness in Colorless Tsukuru. Women are either utterly inscrutable, fabulously beautiful, stunningly efficient, or insane. The female body stuns the narrative and resists analysis. As the novel progresses, Tsukuru’s search for answers, his “pilgrimage,” turns into a hunt for the source and reason for one female character’s hysteria. The most that can be said without revealing too much is that this character falsely claims to have been raped. The best explanation Murakami’s shamanic wizardry can give for this is that it was a product of “hysteric confusion.”

That is, of course, not to say that Colorless Tsukuru is without merit. Several paragraphs are downright beautiful, filled with prose that is both delicate and strong. Murakami is certainly at his best when he composes the novel’s metafictional sections. The story a character tells to Tsukuru about his father’s time at a spa in the mountains is effective and memorable. These strengths are finally not enough to save the novel from the jarring elements that dominate its pages, however. Like the melody that begins “Le mal du pays,” Colorless Tsukuru is aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.





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9 Responses to “Aloof, Quiet, and Dissonant: On Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”

  1. Jack M
    at 12:52 pm on August 11, 2014

    Despite my love of Japanese literature, I really find Murakami’s prose lacking. His stories also have very weak endings, and when I finish one, I have the feeling of having invested my time for a meagre payoff. I don’t understand why he is so beloved by so many.

  2. Karl M
    at 1:01 pm on August 11, 2014

    Jack M,

    I’ve become rather disillusioned with Murakami since ‘Kafka on the Shore’. Can you recommend some other Japanese practitioners?

  3. Stull, Kansas
    at 2:18 pm on August 11, 2014

    I’ve never understood Murakami’s literary stature. His characters seem utterly two-dimensional to me, his plots insipid, and even as a stylist, he seems fairly unremarkable. I suspect his ideal reader must have a love/appreciation of whimsy that I lack…

  4. Jack M
    at 7:23 am on August 13, 2014

    Karl M, if you are looking for great Japanese authors, go with Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, and Junichiro Tanizaki. Also very good is Out, a thriller written by Natsuo Kirino. There are many great authors from this country, but Murakami isn’t one of them. Happy reading!

  5. Allen
    at 11:36 pm on August 20, 2014

    @Jack, If you’re reading Murakami because he’s a Japanese writer, you’re reading him for the wrong reasons. Let me reconstitute these quotes for you:

    “Despite my love of American literature, I really find ______’s prose lacking.”

    “There are many great authors from [America], but ______ isn’t one of them.”

    Doesn’t that sound weird? Why judge an author within the context of their nationality?

  6. Water, Water, Everywhere | Woody Brown Writes
    at 11:15 am on September 5, 2014

    […] now, I’d like to point you to my most recent review.  I wrote about Haruki Murakami’s deeply flawed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilg…  It only occurred to me after the review was published that the “years of pilgrimage” […]

  7. This Week In Literature | A Disordered World
    at 5:01 am on September 10, 2014

    […] However reviews have been generally not-so-great. (See, for example, The Millions‘ review here.  I devoured 1Q84 but have never been able to get into any of Murakami’s other novels. So […]

  8. This Week In Literature – Sept. 8 – 14 | A Disordered World
    at 5:13 am on September 12, 2014

    […] However reviews have been generally not-so-great. (See, for example, The Millions‘ review here.)  I devoured 1Q84 but have never been able to get into any of Murakami’s other novels. So […]

  9. Otakore Literantadodist
    at 8:50 am on October 17, 2014

    I hooked reading this novel and trapped in Tsukur Tazaki’s world for couple of days after finishing it. This book just touched my mind and heart. This is actually my first Haruki Murakami title and would start reading all of his book moving forward.

    I also did a review of this book at the following link:

    http://www.literateknolohitura.com/2014/10/haruki-murakami-colorless-tsukuru-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage.html

    Your thoughts / comment is very much appreciated.

    Thanks!

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