Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is Haruki Murakami’s most autobiographical novel since Norwegian Wood. Much like Tsukuru, who belongs to this rare group of friends who fit together like missing pieces of a puzzle, and one day is ousted from the group without any real explanation, Murakami too has belonged to the literary world like an outcast. All of Tsukuru’s friends but him have a family name corresponding to a color; Akamatsu (red pine), Oumi (blue sea), Shirane (white root) and Kurono (black field). In physics, the fifth dimension is a hypothetical extra, beyond the usual three spatial dimensions and one time dimension of Relativity. Tsukuru forever remains like that hypothetical dimension that has no permanence.
He constantly pictures himself as a colorless being floating in the universe, fails to bring himself to even take his own life and eventually decides to move on carrying his irreparable heart and invisible scars. He leaves his small town and moves to Tokyo, where he completes his education and takes a job as an engineer designing railroad stations. In his state of forced isolation, he sits alone at railway stations and watches trains pass, observes people go by during rush hours and during laze, almost like an orchestral interlude. Disturbingly amid this, he experiences graphic sexual dreams involving his childhood friends. Tsukuru’s suppressed fantasies often take a dark turn, perhaps due to his undeserved accusation and eventual angst against the very people he had connected with at the deepest level.
Like all his other novels, music plays a significant part in this book too. Haida, another important character Tsukuru meets during his journey who eventually becomes his closest friend and guide, draws him into the realm of classical music, especially affecting his life with a particular piece by Franz Liszt called “Le mal du pays”. This piece keeps reappearing through the book in Tskuru’s stream of consciousness, often taking him back to the days he had left long behind, stirring him emotionally. There are enough indulgences for Haruki loyalists too, coffee shops and lonesome hearts, stark contrasts of the bombilating metropolitan and the tranquil arms of nature. Surprisingly however, there are no cats this time.
It’s a minimalist novel to say the least, but strangely it finds a unique place between the more mainstream Norwegian Wood and his other subliminal works such as Sputnik Sweetheart. There is a sense of abruptness that lingers throughout the book, Tsukuru’s deep friendship with the youngsters, his removal from the group, his experiencing love with Sara who he meets later in life, and who eventually convinces him to make that journey backwards. The genius of Murakami lies in the fact that he keeps the secret holding the plot together under wraps for a long time, yet Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki never really becomes a suspense story.
In an interview given by a popular Indian filmmaker, I had read about how he had shot a particular lovemaking scene in the early 90s so as to not make it look sleazy. He knew he was battling against an age-old mindset where a man undressing a woman on screen was meant for cheering and whistling in collective. But the filmmaker in question knew that it would take away the poignancy from the scene that he wanted to create. Finally he filmed the scene by lighting it in such a way that their silhouettes were sufficient to depict their love for each other, thus retaining the tenderness. Murakami manages just that, by introducing a dilemma very early on and then making the protagonist go through a ‘pilgrimage’ in search of unanswered questions and subsequent closure, but never gives in to clichés.
Yet one cannot help but notice the preferential treatment that he offers to his lead, who describes himself as “I have no sense of self, I have no personality, no brilliant color. I have nothing to offer. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape … but there’s nothing inside”. His sympathies always lie with Tsukuru, and this is where even a writer of his caliber cannot separate himself from his creation. This novel is replete with moments that are vulnerable and honest yet transient and open-ended at the same time. Murakami’s world is allegorical, constructed with symbolism and sensitivity. Especially in contrast to his earlier works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dance Dance Dance, and even his last monumental trilogy 1Q84, which were shrouded in mysticism and nebulousness, and had left many readers sullen and dissatisfied.
This novel is his most approachable book since Norwegian Wood, and that intention is pretty clear from the simplistic manner and pace with which the story moves forward. There is no real time–space interplay, it is self-reflexive and imitative yet never crossing that thin line between the subconscious and the surreal. His deep connect with his childhood is as evident here as is the influence that American literature had on him and his constant urge to escape from his hometown and roots. Murakami himself grew up in a Japan that was torn apart by war, political disorder and economic imbalance. Yet his characters typically belong to the upper-middle class surroundings, often bored and distant, spending their days in ambiguity. This perhaps is also a tool of wish-fulfilment for Murakami, to compensate for the fact that he can no longer evade his fame and succumb to the charms of anonymity.
There is a popular story about how he wrote Norwegian Wood, his first global blockbuster, during his stay in the UK. And by the time he came back to Japan, it had already outsold everything Murakami had written previously, earning a cult status. On his return he was greeted with a celebrity-like treatment that he couldn’t handle. Millions of people still pre-order and wait in queues every time a new novel by him is ready for release, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. In fact, a film adaptation could well be on the cards, given the universal theme and sentiments that are dealt with in this book. Yet like Sara says, what also is my favorite line in the book, “You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them”, ghosts from some of his far-less celebrated works will never cease to haunt the soul of Tsukuru, just like reminiscences from his own past does in the book.