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Japanese pilgrim enters the void


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

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki MurakamiJen:

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 was my role in the group. To be empty.'

Can the same be said of Murakami's latest novel? On an existential level, perhaps. It's true that the 'absence' or 'emptiness' comes with too much conviction not to have greater purpose. When we enter the void of Murakami's making something indelible happens. We, the reader, fill in the spaces. And somewhere between fact and fiction, we come to realise that the hopes, dreams and longing of one Tsukuru Tazaki converge with our own.


What an intriguing ride Murakami takes us on. The book's pilgrimage towards intimacy contrasts sharply with the punishment of isolation; union (and reunion) are warded off by melancholy.

Significantly perhaps for a writer absorbed in etymology, whose own name in part means 'unevenness or irregularity' (mura) and 'spirits, or ghosts' (kami), he loads his moving story with the Japanese tradition of night terrors and supernatural bogeymen. Evil spirits latch onto people's souls, birds call out ominously in the night, events happen and do not happen, dreams are alternate truths, and assigned death tokens lend the doomed a Zen clarity of perception.

Add the dark forests and 'bad elves' of Finnish lore and we have a mystical ballgame that's balanced out by his charming stylistic flourishes. (Bellboys grin and exit rooms like clever cats, receptionists caress phones as if patting dogs' noses, taciturn buskers' dogs stare resolutely into the middle distance, etc.).

Murakami is quite the cultural magpie, with his word perfect dialogues and colour coding of characters evoking Tarantino, and the book's partial title (Years of Pilgrimage) tied to a work by Franz Liszt. Blink and you'll miss a wealth of references and relegated wisdom.

As for the self-doubting Tsukuru; he's an innocent; or is he? The book charts the course of this 'apostate' forced to swim friendless 'across the freezing sea at night'.

I hear your concerns about juvenile premises re Tsukuru's arrested development, Jen, but my key issue is one of narratorial reliability — Murakami has us dancing on treacherous shoals, with the presentation of mental health, reality and truth all up for grabs. A book that shelters from storms of rejection and depression, it also offers a bleak dismissal of permanence or reassurance as 'the builder' knows that to lose love is to die, and 'die in reality, or die figuratively — there isn't much difference between the two ... All will become a void.'

What initially comes off as self-indulgence and melodrama, taken in context and weighed in honest relevance, is one man staring bravely into the abyss.

Symbolism is a key tool, as opposed to fleshed-out characterisation or plot denouement. Jen, you are spot on about Franz Kafka's influence. The near-death of our self-effacing hero leads to a rebirth and, apparently, an astonishing physical change to the point of near-unrecognisability (take a bow, Metamorphosis' Gregor Samsa).

Coming from a traditional culture where assimilation and social order has been a historical imperative, perhaps the book's themes go beyond the intimate to acknowledge the soul-eating, conformist nature of society.

As for the convergence of hopes, dreams and longing, Jen, I'm inclined to a less cheery outlook. Murukami, brilliantly if erratically, offers an unreliable, subconscious dreamland where longing is torture and hope is just a way of prolonging the agony.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, book review, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, Japan, Haruki Murakami



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Existing comments

Very interesting review. I'm a fan of this writer (born the same year as me) who deserves to be awarded a Literature Nobel Prize! One quibble, though - the play with his name. Perhaps you need to check the kanji/Chinese characters: Mura (?) is village, while kami is not the gods (?) but another kami (?) meaning Upper (MURAKAMI = Upper Village. Haru (?)= spring, ki (?)= tree (suggesting strength/height) Haruki then might be said to mean "with strength/flowering"! Someone else might give a more nuanced translation. Otherwise - beautiful review!

Jim KABLE | 01 August 2014  

Thanks, Jim; as a non-Chinese/Japanese 'reader' and speaker I am happy to stand corrected if I've over-reached or projected there.

Barry Gittins | 01 August 2014  

Barry-san - Kon-ban-wa! Good-evening, Barry. Alerted to your reply by a friend. I see that the Chinese characters I sent to illustrate my translation have turned into bracketed question marks! All "corrections" or elucidations of what has been presented are chances for learning further. (O-kage-sama-de) I thank YOU and Jen again for a great review and this chance to add!

Jim KABLE | 01 August 2014  

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