Tuesday, 2 September 2014

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami (Review)

After almost six years of blogging, I'm fairly used to getting books in the post, but I was still rather excited when an unexpected parcel arrived a few weeks back with a big embargo sticker on it  (it actually arrived half an hour after the embargo had been lifted, but still...).  Inside was the beautiful book you see in the photo, and I was sorely tempted to fling everything to one side and get straight into it.

However, a new Haruki Murakami book is always a big event around these parts, and I (just about) managed to restrain myself and finish the book I was on.  Then it was time to get started: one quick read, a two-week gap, then a leisurely reread before scribbling my random thoughts down in a semi-coherent fashion - and here's what I thought about it...

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel, review copy courtesy of Random House Australia) is the story of thirty-six-year-old train station designer Tsukuru Tazaki, a native of Nagoya who moved to Tokyo for study and work and has stayed there ever since.  At the start of the novel, he has recently begun a tentative relationship with the beautiful Sara Kimoto, one he's hoping will grow into something stronger.  He's rich, good looking and successful in his job, so you'd expect him to be happy - sadly, that's not the case.

His problems go back to his younger days, when Tsukuru was part of a group of five inseparable high-school kids, each of whom (with the exception of Tsukuru) had a name which contained a colour.  Suddenly, without warning, the other four cut him adrift, and this rejection by his friends sent him spiralling into depression:
"All around him, for as far as he could see, lay a rough land strewn with rocks, with not a drop of water, nor a blade of grass.  Colorless, with no light to speak of.  No sun, no moon or stars.  No sense of direction, either.  At a set time, a mysterious twilight and a bottomless darkness merely exchanged places.  A remote border on the edges of consciousness."
p.33 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
The following months are a time of great suffering, and while Tsukuru eventually manages to pull himself out of the abyss, the events of the time have left a deep impression on his life.

Despite the importance of the relationship with his friends he never dared to ask why they cut him off, but sixteen years later, at Sara's prompting, Tsukuru Tazaki decides that it's time to confront the past.  Why was he ostracised by his closest friends for reasons he can't even begin to understand?  And, more importantly, why can't he move on with his life?

Early reviews of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... have been positive, and I'm not going to argue - while I liked 1Q84 more than most, this still feels like a return to form.  It's the story of a man nostalgic for his carefree youth, desperately missing something he once had, but can never reclaim:
"But you can't go back now?  To that orderly, harmonious, intimate place?"
 He thought about this, though there was no need to.  "That place doesn't exist anymore," he said quietly.
It was in the summer of his sophomore year in college when that place vanished forever." (p.23)
It's one of the more 'normal' Murakami books, but there are still plenty of the slightly off-kilter elements the reader would expect from his writing.  We're treated to dreams, strange characters, fascinating and secretive women, stories within stories and, of course, an unresolved ending.

When the title first became known in English, many people thought that it might be changed for the translation (it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue...).  However, it's actually an important reflection of the content and themes of the novel, giving several clues as to what lies ahead.  Quite apart from the colour aspect, there's the significance of the name 'Tsukuru' (the Japanese verb for 'make' or 'construct'), an apt name for a man destined to go out into the world to build train stations.  The name was chosen, after considerable deliberation, by Tsukuru's father, and it's hard to avoid thinking that rather than Tsukuru choosing his path in life, his name - colourless as it is - decided that path for him.

The second part of the title is just as important, as the years of pilgrimage that it refers to are not just those Tsukuru spends searching for the truth. Liszt's set of piano suites, Années de pèlerinage (which, in turn, takes its title from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre), features heavily in the novel, and one haunting piece, 'Le mal du pays', acts as a kind of leitmotif, recurring throughout the book.   Shiro ('white'), one of Tsukuru's group of friends, played the piece constantly, and a later friend Haida (whose name contains the character for 'grey'...) leaves the record of the suites at Tsukuru's apartment.  If Lazar Berman's interpretation of Liszt's work goes rocketing up the classical music charts, you'll know why...

The two-part title is also reminiscent, though, of Murakami's own Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and while the earlier book seems rather different, there are several similarities.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... also has a double strand, with the two lives happening to two very different people (Murakami emphasises this by having the trauma of the rejection by his friends alter Tsukuru physically, in terms of both his face and his body).  There's also the small matter of dreams and the subconscious, always a feature of Murakami's work, and despite the 'real' nature of this novel, there's always a sense that some things can't quite be explained, that Tsukuru's dreams (sexual or otherwise) threaten to bleed into the real world.  As Kuro ('black') comments:
"But I do think that sometimes, a certain kind of dream can be even stronger than reality..." (p.238)
If you add to that the ambiguous ending and the feeling that Tsukuru is racing against time to save his relationship with Sara, the comparison between the books doesn't seem quite so absurd ;)

While in one sense the idea of colours is a bit of a red (!) herring (it's got nothing to do with why he was rejected by his friends), it does play an important role throughout the novel.  Part of Tsukuru's problem is that deep down he really does believe that he is colourless:
"There must be something in him, something fundamental that disenchanted people.  'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki,' he said aloud.  I basically have nothing to offer to others.  If you think about it, I don't even have anything to offer myself." (pp.100/1)
At the beginning, the reader is fooled into seeing things the way Tsukuru does, but once we meet his former friends, we begin to realise that Tsukuru has a lot going for himself.  His friends emphasise his good looks, his likeable nature, the way he acted as a glue to hold the group together - he just can't see it himself.  This is as true in real life as it is in the novel; it's all too easy to think of others as 'colourful' and much brighter than ourselves...

A further metaphor for this idea is offered by Midorikawa ('green river'...) a wandering pianist who appears in a story Haida tells Tsukuru about his father.  The man claims to be able to see people's auras, a window into their character, and later in the novel Tsukuru begins to wonder whether Haida was actually telling him about his own aura.  We could also consider Tsukuru's dreams in which black and white suddenly turn grey - but I think I'll leave that one for someone more qualified to examine ;)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... is primarily a voyage of discovery for the title figure, but in many ways it's the character of Sara which is the most intriguing.  Many will see her as a simple catalyst, another of Murakami's stock female creations, but I'm not sure she can be dismissed quite so easily.  She seems far too eager to get involved in unravelling the secrets of Tsukuru's past for someone who isn't really in a proper relationship with him yet, and I was a little confused when Kuro mentioned having heard about her (a brand-new semi-girlfriend), despite not having talked to Tsukuru in sixteen years...

Were I to go out on a limb, I'd be tempted to say that the whole thing is actually in his head (the relationship, not the whole story - although...).  Perhaps the whole search for closure comes about because Tsukuru wants to get closer to Sara and realises that he's not going to get anywhere until he resolves his issues.  This would also explain what he saw when sitting in a café before flying off to meet Kuro.  Or, then again, perhaps I'm just making this all up, and the whole thing's in *my* head (that's the trouble with Murakami - you really can read whatever you want into his stories a lot of the time...).

While I saw many ties to Hard-Boiled Wonderland..., most will compare Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... to Norwegian Wood.  Stylistically, the two books are fairly similar, and both are about a thirty-something man looking back at a pivotal year of his life.  The difference is that where Toru Watanabe is focused on the then, Tsukuru Tazaki is functioning in the now.  There are also parallels between the women in the books, with the dark and light of Shiro and Kuro complementing the earlier couple of Naoko and Midori - whose name means 'green' (my head is starting to hurt).

Recently, at the Edinburgh Festival, Murakami said that he wasn't overly keen on the third-person point of view as it tends to create an air of detachment, but he does that here to great effect, lending the story a wonderfully melancholy air.  Digging down to the sentence level, though, it's not quite as good.  Murakami's sentences can often be clumsy and repetitive, especially in dialogue, and there are frequent examples of sentences I'm glad I didn't write:
"He stared fixedly at the image of of his naked body for the longest time, like someone unable to stop watching a TV news report of a huge earthquake or terrible flood in a faraway land." (p.36)
A translation issue, perhaps?  I doubt it.  Philip Gabriel is a fairly big-name translator, and with a book like this, I suspect that a lot of care would have gone into examining the text.  The truth is that Murakami's books are a good example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, where simple, clunky, sentences cohere into a mesmerising piece of writing.  I suspect that not everyone will agree with that assessment, though...

With Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... being a return to form, and I'm pretty confident that it is, the inevitable talk of his Nobel Prize chances will crank up again, but I'm not convinced that it'll ever happen.  There are much better stylists out there, and it only takes one or two grumpy old Swedes who are convinced that his work fails to transcend pop fiction to ensure it will never go his way.  However, he does have a fairly impressive body of work now (I have sixteen of his books on my shelves), and he has developed an importance as a gateway writer, not just for Japanese literature, but also for translated fiction in general.  He's a figurehead for non-Anglophone writers, a genuine literary superstar, and while there are other writers who I'd rate above him, I wouldn't begrudge him the honour if it came his way :)

So, having written far too much (and said far too little), how to sum up my thoughts on the book?  Well, I actually did it a few weeks ago on finishing the first read-through.  I dashed off a quick tweet which basically said:
"Really enjoyed this, a great book - the lovers will love it, and the haters will hate it.".
And that pretty much sums it up (I could have saved myself the trouble of writing the review, really).

Oh, in case you're wondering, I'm most definitely on the side of the lovers ;)