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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.

Reading Horizons For Japanese Literature Challenge

Events like the Japanese Literature Challenge give me a great excuse to have a rummage through the shelves and stacks of my owned but unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).

I was surprised to find I own more books by Japanese authors than I expected. Some of these clearly crept into the house when I wasn’t looking.

Let’s look a little more closely at what I could be reading over the three months of this year’s challenge.

Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama is his sixth novel but the first to be translated into English. It became a publishing phenomenon in Japan, selling at the astounding rate of a million copies in six days. This is the only crime novel in my little collection, focusing on the disappearance of two young girls. This is a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.

Then we have two authors of enormous international repute.

Haruki Murakami is an author I’ve been unsure about reading for some years because so much of his work seems to involve fantasy/surrealism elements. The only one of his books I’ve read is Norwegian Wood which I loved but which I understand isn’t typical of his style. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is perhaps edging more towards the mysterious/strange atmospheric elements found in his best-known novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of one of my all time favourite Booker Prize winners with The Remains of the Day. Oddly however I’ve never read any of this other novels. As you can see I have two options: the very fat The Unconsoled and the considerably slimmer Nocturnes. I’m not entirely clear why I bought Nocturnes since it’s a collection of short stories and I don’t typically enjoy reading those. Maybe this will change my mind?

The last author in this little group is another that I’ve only dipped my toe into as it were. Yukio Mushima is regarded by many critics as the most important Japanese novelist of the 20th century. I was mesmerised by After The Banquet although I admit that I didn’t understand many elements of the book.

The Decay of the Angel that you can just see in the image is a book I bought in a charity shop but I couldn’t have been paying close attention because it’s the fourth title in  his famous  Sea of Fertility tetralogy I don’t have the first three parts so there isn’t much point in reading this yet.

Which brings me to the big question? Which of these am I going to read first?

I’m going with the Murakami.

It might be the only one I get to read for Japanese Literature Challenge this year. But as I explained in my post about my 2020 reading goals, I’m focusing this year on short events rather than long reading challenges. So if I get to read just one book per event, I’ll class that as success.

If you are familiar with any of the titles I’ve mentioned do let me know what you thought of them. Do you have any favourite Japanese authors I can add to my list for future years?? Do leave me a comment with your suggestions and recommendations.

10 books I enjoyed most in 2016

This week’s Top Ten topic,  hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is the ten best books of 2016. By which I take it they mean the books I read in 2016 that I enjoyed the most. I’ve pontificated about this for a few weeks now but can delay no longer. So here is my list. I was surprised to see how many are Booker prize related.

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  1. Top spot goes to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for her sweeping saga of life in China during the Cultural Revolution and its effects on three musicians. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in my ever so humble opinion should have been the winner. But the judges disagreed….sigh.
  2. The Many by Wyl Menmuir: a debut novel which was mesmerising even if I didn’t fully understand it. Contained some disturbing ideas about the long term effectof pollution on the sea and fishing stock . It was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize
  3. The North Water by Ian McGuire: Another 2016 Booker contender, this was a rollicking if grim historical adventure set on a whaling ship.
  4. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: the only non fiction book to make it onto my top 10, this was a thought-provoking detailed examination of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans and the life/death decisions confronting the medical staff.
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: my first experience of this Belgian-born author. After reading this terrific novella about a young girl’s humiliation when she goes to work for a Japanese company and comes bang up against cultural rules and expectations.
  6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Another author that I read for the first time in 2016 and what an experience. The plot focuses on a group of people who go to a concert in a Latin American country and end up being taken hostage. Although there is plenty of tension and drama, the real interest for me was in how the different hostages (who include a world famous opera singer, her accompanist and a devoted fan) all respond to music.
  7. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: it’s taken me many years to get around to reading Murakami. It was delightful atmospheric novel about love and loss.
  8. The Gathering by Anne Enright: another Booker title but this time a winner – from 2007. Irish authors often tend to focus on doom and gloom and this one is no exception since it revolves around a sister’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. It’s grim in a sense but Enright portrays the inner life of her protagonist so well I just had to keep reading.
  9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North: by Richard Flanagan: Winner of the Booker Prize in 2014, this is a riveting story account of an Australian doctor who is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife and his experience as a prisoner of war in Thailand.
  10. My Name is Lucy Barton  by Elizabeth Strout: yet another 2016 Booker contender though I read this long before the Booker judges made their initial selection. It’s the first time I read anything by Strout and on the strength of this tale about a mother/daughter relationship I’ll be keen to read some of her earlier work.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: Review

NorwegianwoodCherry  blossom season comes and goes. Kyoto lies under a blanket of snow. Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood may range across the seasons but the heart of its protagonist Toru Watanabe is forever locked in winter.

As his plane lands in Berlin a snatch of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood comes wafting over the aircraft sound system. It awakens his memory of the time when more than twenty years earlier he had fallen in love with a beautiful, though deeply-troubled, fellow student Naoko. The last occasion on which he saw her was when they walked together in a frozen landscape near a remote sanitorium where she was undergoing therapy. Soon after she killed herself in those snow-clad woods.

Time has blurred his memory of that scene and the person he once was. But every so often, just as it does on that flight, it returns.

Each time it appears it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. Wake up, it says, I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here. The kicking never hurts me. There’s no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick.

Toru relives for us the days of his younger self as a student in Tokyo in 1969. This is not a novel about the halcyon days of young love but a painful, troubled tale of a coming of age. Or as Toru puts it: “In the midst of life, everything revolved around death.”

We learn that Naoko’s death was not the only tragedy Toru experienced as a young man. He’d once had a close bond with two other students  and his girlfriend Naoko. But when Kuzuki inexplicably committed suicide,  the two survivors were thrown closer together and the inevitable happened, Toru fell in love with Naoko.  She’s a very troubled young woman who though sweet and longing for happiness cannot deal with the strain of life.

While Naoko experiences a breakdown and seeks help at the sanitorium, Toru becomes enamoured with another student. Midori Kobayashi is everything Naoko is not;  vibrant, adventurous, unconventional. A date with Naoko took the form of a long walk through the suburbs of the city; a date with Midori involves clubs, drinks and a visit to a porn cinema. With her Toru may have the chance to achieve what Naoko’s death removed; a chance of real life and love.

Many other authors would, at this point, opt to wrap the novel up with a neat and tidy ending in which the potential lovers either walk off together to find a new life or forever part. Murakami avoids the conventional end. Instead he leads us only part of the way through the frozen landscape of a relationship, giving clues as to a potential ending but leaving us to decide whether ultimately Toru embraces the opportunity of a new life with Midori or continues in his grief and devotion to the unobtainable dead Naoko.

The subtlety of the ending perfectly reflects the delicateness and elusiveness with which Murakami renders this story of young, tragic love. He doesn’t wallow in the emotions but lets us feel Toru’s bewilderment as he approaches the crossroads of his life. Deceptively simple in terms of plot, the writing is so beautifully managed and suffused with symbolism and layers of meaning, the result is surprisingly affecting.

 

 

Snapshot January 2016

Happy New Year!

 

First of all a big thank you to all of you who’ve followed this blog over the last year, sharing your reactions, asking questions and giving advice. Without you this whole blogging lark would be a very miserable experience.

Now what was I up to as I opened my new calendar to the first page?

Reading

I’ve landed myself in a spot I don’t enjoy where I have multiple books on the go. Two I can manage if they are vastly different genres (one fiction, one non fiction for example) or if one is in hard copy and the other on the e reader. But three is testing my limit.

Lookat Me

NorwegianwoodA place called winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started reading Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me early in December but this story of a model’s identity issue after she is smashed up in a car accident, didn’t feel the right thing to be reading during our family Christmas retreat. The snowy landscape on the cover of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood seemed far more apt (even though there was no snow around and the weather on Christmas Day was more like spring). And things were going really well despite not being given much opportunity to read – there was always someone who wanted to play charades or dish out yet more cake. And then I got into a panic yesterday because I realised the book club meeting is next week and I hadn’t even opened the chosen title. Which is why I’ve had to abandon the first two novels and to pick up Patrick Gale’s shortlisted Costa prize novel A Place Called Winter.  It don’t hate it but I don’t love it either and would much rather be reading Murakami…..

Listening

Sarah Walters is one of those names I’ve seen  around a lot but never felt that motivated to read. But I spotted an audio recording in the library of her most recent novel Paying Guests and decided to give it a go. Not convinced I would enjoy reading it but it’s certainly a good one for the car as I’ve been scurrying around recently. This one is set in London in the early years after the end of World War 1 when a genteel lady and her daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet. The arrival of Len and Lily as ‘paying guests’ disrupts the household but no-one could have predicted it would all end in a sensational court case. Walters does a superb job of conveying the period detail where just to take a bath involves considerable effort and the streets are full of out of work ex-servicemen.

Watching

TV is not allowed at our family Christmas gatherings so we had to wait for our return home to catch up with the BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It was much trailed because of its star-studded cast. But I found it disappointing – very slow and ponderous.

#Read into 2016 – at the midnight hour I was reading

Read into 2016Having challenged you all to stop the reading clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve 2015 and share what you were reading at that time, I obviously had to take a dose of my own medicine. So here is the low down on my #readinto16

Though I’m not much of a party animal and in fact hate all the whooping that greets New Year’s Eve, when the clock struck the hour, I was enjoying a glass of bubbly with a few friends at home. So I was not actually reading at that moment (it would have seemed a bit rude wouldn’t it to rush off and stick my nose in a book??). Maybe other hostesses could have managed that with aplomb but not yours truly. So I will simply share what was on my bedside table at the time: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

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This is the first time I’ve read anything by Murakami. I’ve seen those big fat titles and thought them a little daunting (plus they seemed a bit sci-fi which I don’t get on with too well) . But during a business trip to the States I was at the bookstore looking for a book to read on the flight home. I was staring at Murakami, taking each one off the shelf and scrutinising it while debating whether this would be the moment to give him a go. I hadn’t noticed a colleague had come to stand next to me but he reached out, picked out a book from the shelf, handed it to me and said simply “take this one, it’s the best one he’s written, just wonderful.” It was Norwegian Wood.

That was three years ago and it’s taken me until now to get around to opening it. I’m glad I did because although I’m only about a third of the way through, I love it. You know how there are some books that you start reading and before too long you just know this is made for you? Norwegian Wood is one of those experiences.

To describe it as a love story makes it sound slushy. It is about love but it’s also about memory and loss. I have to force myself to read it slowly because I’m afraid of missing some of Murakami’s beautiful prose in my rush to know what happened in the love affair between the young Japanese students.

It’s getting 2016 off to a brilliant start……

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