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colorless tsukuru tazaki and his years of pilgrimage

23 august 2014

I've noted here before that Haruki Murakami is at his best when his dramatic situations and plot complications are asymmetric, as in Sputnik Sweetheart. That's one reason I didn't like the curiously balanced 1Q84 quite so much. I'm happy to report that he's back to imbalance in his newly translated novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a pleasantly ambitious novel with lots of characters and a raft of mysteries that compete for the reader's attention. I'm pleased to see that the sixtysomething Murakami hasn't checked out or abandoned his primal concerns after the sprawling 1Q84. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a substantial novel, in many ways typical of Murakami's careerlong concerns. It also adds a note of sadness and urgency to the mix.

Mystery drives the plot, however. Our protagonist is the colorless thirtyish title character. He's an engineer who works on railway-station construction, single, without a whole lot of hobbies. You know the type if you know Murakami. It would hardly be a Murakami novel without describing the frugal meals Tsukuru eats in his bachelor flat. Not that he needs anything better! A bowl of miso soup will do.

OK, I'll stop the parody. Tsukuru loves Sara, who evidently loves an older man. In his youth, Tsukuru had loved Shiro, but Kuro had loved Tsukuro. Explaining the character dynamics this way makes the novel sound like dialogue from Woody Allen's Love and Death. But that film is a parody of great novels, and great novels have a way of being about unsatisfactory, intransitive attractions. Even Elective Affinities ends up being a pretty complicated principle for Goethe's characters to follow.

Much the more so for Murakami's. In his secondary-school days in Nagoya, Tsukuru had been a member of an inseparable "hand" of five friends – two girls and three boys, including the aforementioned Shiro and Kuro. (The band reminds one of Donna Tartt's Secret History.) Tsukuru had been the only one of the five to go away to higher education, to a college in Tokyo. Soon after he left Nagoya, his four friends made it clear that he was no longer part of their life, and must never try to contact them.

That sounds depressing, and for Tsukuru, it was. The "Years of Pilgrimage" in the title may refer to Tsukuru's long-delayed attempt to find answers to his abandonment. Or it may just refer to his entire life from the initial breach onwards. Either way, he's spent considerable time in the wilderness. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a novel about finding your way back.

It's also a novel that posits essential differences between men and women, and that casts relationships drably in the calculus of sexual sensation. I don't think its views on love are well thought through. That doesn't diminish it much as a reading experience, because I'm not really sure it's supposed to be about plumbing the depths of the human heart. It's about trying to ascertain what went on in an irrecoverable past, about distinguishing desire from fruition, and about the arrow of time. That's quite enough for one book.

As with 1Q84, Murakami's American publishers have knocked themselves out in terms of book design. (In fact, they seem to have gone over the top in every language that 1Q84 was translated into, and I look forward to rummaging around world bookstores to see what they've done with Tazaki.) The American first edition of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage has an intricately designed cover that meshes with a cutout dust jacket to sum up some major themes of the novel. The result is that you're staring at something incomprehensible when you first open it, and bit by bit come to see the physical book as an emblem of its contents. There's also some bravura stuff with the running page numbers, as there was with 1Q84. After a long spell of pretty ordinary book design, it's very cool to see these material expressions come into their own.

Murakami Haruki. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. [Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to kare no junrei no toshi, 2013.] Translated by Philip Gabriel. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2014.