The growing popularity of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famous, and some would say greatest, living writer, was confirmed last month with the publishing of his latest novel. “Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is a somewhat less ambitious and significantly shorter work than his previous effort, “1Q84,” but that didn’t stop it from shattering sales records here in Japan, as it shifted over 1 million copies within just one week of hitting the shelves. So great was the expectation for Murakami’s first novel in four years that a number of bookstores opened their doors especially at midnight on the day of release, to oblige desperate fans unable to wait another minute to start reading. While I’m a huge admirer of the author myself, I was patient enough to wait until the following morning to get my hands on a copy. Now, a few weeks later, having reached the end of my own little pilgrimage through the book’s pages, I’m ready to share my thoughts.
Without giving too much away, the story follows Tsukuru, a quiet, unassuming guy in his mid-thirties (like pretty much every other Murakami protagonist!), who in this case designs train stations for a living in Tokyo. While fairly happy in his job, he has trouble forming meaningful relationships, all because of a traumatic experience from his student days when, suddenly and without explanation, his four closest high school friends cut off all contact with him. Tsukuru is referred to as “colorless” because he was the only one of the group not to feature a color in his surname, and the “pilgrimage” of the title basically involves him setting out to meet these four friends again, sixteen years after the ties between them were cut. By discovering the reason behind this puzzling rejection, he hopes to be able to put his mind at rest and move on with his life.
Reading “Colorless Tsukuru…” on the back of “1Q84” – a typically sprawling and surreal Murakami tale featuring parallel dimensions, shady religious cults, a town of cats and kids in cocoons – the thing that struck me most a few chapters in was how comparatively normal it was. It reminded me a lot of Murakami’s breakthrough novel “Norwegian Wood,” a story that is similarly rooted in the real world and follows a main character scarred by his relationship experiences as a young man. When making this comparison, however, I found “Colorless Tsukuru…” to be lacking in some ways. For example, “Norweigen Wood” contains much more in terms of interesting social commentary, being set in the turbulent Tokyo of the early 1960s, and it also has a cast of more engaging characters. None of the people I encountered during the course of “Colorless Tsukuru…” really jumped off the page and grabbed my attention like, for instance, Midori or Reiko from “Norwegian Wood” managed to.
Although I wasn’t exactly blown away by this book, or captivated by its characters, I did find plenty to enjoy in it, and by the end I was firmly rooting for Tsukuru to achieve his long-sought-for peace of mind. I also liked the fact that, unlike the bloated “1Q84,” this was a much more streamlined and compact story, which never dragged. It could have done with more a bit more characteristic Murakami weirdness and dry humor to lighten the overly melancholic tone, but there were enough genuinely memorable and moving passages within it for me to give it a firm thumbs up. I especially liked the story-within-a-story early on, told to Tsukuru by his college friend, about an aging pianist who claims he carries around the gift of death, which he's willing to pass onto anyone who wishes to die in his place. Indeed, the grim specter of death looms over this novel from its opening line: "From July of his sophomore year at college to January of the next year, Tsukuru Tasaki was mostly thinking about dying."
This focus on death is just one of a number of common Murakami themes covered during the course of “Colorless Tsukuru…” There are also musings on the blurring between dreams and reality, the connection between music and memory, and nostalgia for lost innocence of youth, as well as exhaustive descriptions of what people are wearing and eating (though unusually no mention of cats!). Indeed, probably the main criticism leveled at Murakami is that he tends to repeat himself from novel to novel. While I accept this is true in a way, I don’t believe it's necessarily a negative quality. Reading a new Murakami novel is a bit like meeting up with a close friend after many years, just as Tsukuru does – you hope they haven’t changed too much as this may cause you to lose what made you friends in the first place. It didn’t bother me that this story ploughed over some familiar furrows, as this familiarity itself was comforting. That said, it’s not so interesting if the friend/book in question stays completely the same, and there were enough distinguishing elements to this latest work to keep me turning the pages. In any case, to me there’s something seductive about Murakami’s simple yet powerfully evocative style whatever he's writing about. I wouldn't put it past him to make even the latest stock market reports a pleasurable reading experience!