“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage,” a Review
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage
Vintage International, 2015
Magic Realism, Interiority, Bildungsroman Tradition
Haruki Murakami appears to have captured the imaginations of a lot of readers. And that’s saying a lot because he is not a writer who seems to be satisfied with just a story line.
In two other novels I have read, he clearly mixes his own brand of magic realism (fantasy, dream narratives, science fiction, fable) and a very realistic narrative (It would be an understatement to say that Murakami does not shy away from sex or death. He also manages to blend the murder mystery genre into some of his stories).
He is also a writer who has a strong interior sensibility and appears to be particularly drawn to millenials.
A third motif of Murakami’s fiction is a penchant for story lines that resemble the Bildungsroman tradition (stories about self-knowledge journeys, usually about younger protagonists moving through a variety of intense rites of passage).
At the end of the three novels I have read, the central characters may not have been fully formed and grounded, psychologically, but there is a strong sense that they have gone through their own baptisms of fire toward some kind of greater awareness or psychological resolution.
Colorless is no exception.
Tsukuru’s Learning Journey From Isolation
Except for narrative playbacks to his young adult life in high school and college, most of the novel’s actions take place when Tsukuru, the central character, is in his thirties.
Tsukuru’s learning journey does not lead to any radical transformation but it is a cumulative path that adds to his reservoir of experiences that begin to reshape the image of himself as a cypher. That reshaped persona, in the final chapter of the novel gives him some hope that he can win over his girlfriend, Sara, even though he has seen her with another man.
It is during his college years, after leaving his home town, that Tsukuru discovers his four close high-school friends have refused to communicate with him. His eventual mission is to find out the reason.
Before he takes up that journey, and even after, Tsukuru’s psychological profile is typical of so many of Murakami’s loner characters. They either isolate themselves or live loner lives with a very narrow range of experiences.
Tsukuru sees himself as “colorless” and bland. While his four teenage friends all have names associated with a particular color, Tsukuru has no color attached to his name. He is left with his own self-analysis that his life is dull and uninteresting.
The author does nothing to challenge that initial self portrayal. Tsukuru’s almost monastic life in college is described with chilling boredom: “he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life.”
During this part of his life, he becomes fixated on dying and on his belief that he has some kind of emotional “blockage” that may be irredeemably intrinsic to his personality or a result of the abandonment of his four friends.
It is the unraveling of this blockage that comprises so much of Tsuruku’s journey. And it is definitely Murakami’s contemporary analogue to the Bildungsroman tradition.
In college, Tsukuru does nothing out of the ordinary—washes his clothes, brushes his teeth, eats when he’s hungry. He has no particular interest in the arts, is “taciturn,” blushes easily, sees himself with “no particular defects to speak of,” and when he looks in the mirror, sees nothing but boredom.
Like an Asberger’s Syndrome candidate, he has one strong obsession—railroad stations—an obsession that eventually turns into a job inspecting those stations.
The Lessons of Death and Abandonment
Tsukuru befriends a young man (Haida) at the college pool. His friendship with him intensifies when Haida tells him the story of his father meeting an eccentric character at a small hot-springs resort This character, Midorikawa, a jazz pianist, tells Haida’s father that someone told him he (Midorikawa) only had a month to live.
Midorikawa continues his eccentric tale by spinning out a fable about handing over a token (of death) to someone willing die for him, a willingness based on a specific color of person’s aura that would indicate an inclination to consent. Midorikawa gives Haida’s father an extended lecture about how one’s impending death radicalizes one’s perception of the world (Murakami loves these philosophical tangents—Haida and Tsukuru, themselves engage in them)
The ending to this story fits into Murakami’s penchant for mysterious loose ends. Midorikawa leaves the inn. Haida’s father tries to track him down and never finds out if the jazz pianist actually existed.
There is both a structural and thematic connection Murakami is making here between Midorikawa’s side story and Tsukuru’s own personal journey.
Like Tsukuru, Midorikawa himself is preoccupied with death and tells Haida’s father he no longer wants to live. His tale about the specific aura color of a person willing to die for someone is a kind of metaphoric analogue to all of Tsukuru’s high school friends whose names were associated with specific colors.
Murakami gives us a third connection. Just as Midorikawa mysteriously disappears, Haida eventually leaves Tokyo. Murakami gives Haida a fast and mysterious exit: “Haida left Tsukuru for good….eight months after they’d first met. This time he never came back.” (Murakami adds some homoerotic guilt into the narrative when Tsuruku has a vivid sexual dream about Haida before the friend leaves so abruptly.)
The Unraveling of the Mystery to Hope
The rest of the narrative focuses entirely on Tsukuru’s attempt to unravel the mystery of why his high-school friends abandoned him. He eventually finds out (I will leave that mystery unsolved for this review; read the book, please—it’s really worth it).
Suffice it to say that Tsukuru eventually discovers that a key character, Shiro, is murdered. He also discovers that one of the other high-school women, Eri, reveals to him that she fell in love with him in high school.
The resolved mystery and the new knowledge that one of the women had a secret crush on him bolster his courage to pursue his girlfriend, Sara, for a conclusive commitment (The last high-school friend he visits, Eri, gives Tsukuru strong advice to “make” Sara “his”).
At the end of the novel, Tsukuru comes full circle. Just as the bonded friendship he had with his high-school friends gave him hope, he is now hopeful of a fulfilling life: “We truly believed in something back then….And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.”