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Japanese pilgrim enters the void

  • 01 August 2014

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami. Random House, August 2014. Website


In his native Japan, the name Haruki Murakami has immense currency. This is a novellist who's been translated into 50 languages, garnered critical acclaim and awards, and who instils in his considerable fan base a fervent obsession (it's not unusual to see queues outside Tokyo book shops for the latest Murakami release).

Murakami's new novel is no exception. In the first week of its release Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage sold more than one million copies — an incredible achievement by anyone's standards.

First introduced to Murakami several years ago through the mind-altering The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was curious to see what alien and, yet, strangely familiar world the author would this time plunge the reader in.

At first glance Colourless seems to be Murakami scaling back on his themes and zeroing in on a life minor in scale. But, like much in the author's fiction, this isn't quite what it seems. The hapless Tsukuru Tazaki isn't what you'd call enigmatic as much as impervious. We soon learn that the reason for his 'sort of quiet resignation' is an incident that happened almost two decades ago.

In high school, Tsukuru formed close friendships with four other students, with whom he rather naively assumed he would be best friends forever. When his friends inexplicably turn on him and eject him from the circle, he's left reeling. Fast forward several years and the now 36-years-old still nurses these emotional scars. His new girlfriend, Sara, implores him to search out his erstwhile friends and embark on his 'years of pilgrimage'.

This is the only true path for Tsukuru. Christened the 'builder', it's no coincidence that Tsukuru makes a living designing train stations; the only place he feels at home. The scenes of Tsukuru watching the world literally go by are classic Murakami, where his signature struggle of buried emotions and missed opportunities plays out.

I must say that the central premise of a man's life unravelling on the back of youthful friendships gone wrong seemed to me somehow, well, juvenile. But perhaps Murakami's genius doesn't lie in the narrative (I wonder how much translation plays in this), but in the manner in which he steers his moody, psychedelic, some say Kafkaesque, themes of loneliness and alienation. 'I've always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity,' Tsukuru says. 'Maybe that