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Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami [book review]

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is not a book for people who prefer unambiguity in their reading material. This is Haruki Murakami’s thirteenth novel and not only is it filled with an enigmatic character and his obscure dreams, but the ending leaves his future unresolved.

The character in question is a young man whose life is haunted by a great loss in his adolescent years. Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year-old railway engineer with an abiding passion for train stations. He can sit for hours in a station watching the ebb and flow of passengers and the rhythm of train arrivals and departures.

His is an empty life. After work he retreats either to a train station or to his apartment where he listens to music. He has no friends and all his relationships with women have come to nothing. He feels as if the real Tsukuru Tazaki passed away years earlier, leaving only a shell:

… a container that for the sake of convenience was labelled with the same name – but its contents had been replaced.

It was not always so. In his high school years, he had been part of a close-knit quintet; an “orderly, harmonious community” of two girls, three boys. They did everything together, wanting no other friends to disturb their harmony.

Until one day during Tsukuru’s second year in college when those friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. No warning. No explanation. No room for compromise. Just silence. The ostracism left him feeling suicidal, then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in colour and identity.”

Quest For Truth

Now sixteen years later his new girlfriend, Sara Kimoto, encourages him to come face-to-face with the past, to seek out his former friends to mend the relationships and discover why they rejected him. She won’t commit to a relationship with Tsukuru unless he can move past that issue. And so he goes on a pilgrimage to track down those friends and discover the truth.

This is only the second novel I’ve read by Haruki Murakami. I’ve avoided him largely because his novels are frequently surrealistic  and contain large doses of magical realism. more minimalist novels. But Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage attracted me because it sounded more in the style of Norwegian Wood which I loved.

Like so much of Japanese fiction this novel contains themes of alienation and loneliness, embedded into an atmosphere of loss and longing.

Tsukuru is an intelligent, respected in his career and comfortably well off but there is a huge gap in his life. Not only did he lose is school friends, but the college friend who helped him deal with the loss suddenly disappears. Tsukuru as a result feels “fated to always be alone”

He is a man who doesn’t seem fully connected to the world. I don’t mean that he is “other worldly” in a sense of coming from an imaginary universe. He just exists on the fringe of a real and whole life.

The Colourless Outsider

As a young boy he was puzzled why his four friends wanted to be his pals. He was the only member of the group who didn’t have a colour as part of his surname. He didn’t have a striking personality nor any qualities or talents that made him stand out. In fact “everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in colour.” Towards the end of the novel, Tsukuru realises that he lives “as if he were a refugee from his own life”.

I loved the melancholic atmosphere and found Tsukuru a deeply affecting character. It was hard not to sympathise with his feelings of bewilderment when his friends cut him dead and refuse any explanation. We can all imagine the pain of suddenly being abandoned by people who were once your closest friends, people who now treat you as if you never existed.

You hope that by the end of his pilgrimage to his home town and to Finland, that his quest for the truth will bring him happiness. But Murakami leaves us dangling with the kind of ending that is open to interpretation. The final scene has a real emotional pull but tantalisingly we don’t know whether Tsukuru does finally gain some colour in his life.

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