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A Feature Review of
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel
Hardback: A.A. Knopf, 2014
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Reviewed by Janet Ursel
Haruki Murakami’s much-heralded new novel is out and I decided for once to jump on a bandwagon. It was an intriguing book, and it is easy to see why he generates such a buzz.
Colorless Tsukuru is a literary novel, and therefore is concerned with the Big Questions of Life, which is another way to say that it transcends cultures. The Big Question at play here is the nature of reality, or more precisely, how our perception of reality affects our world view and how our perception of our own reality shapes our lives on a very personal level. Murakami if not coy about his thematics: it’s announced in the third paragraph as a devastated Tsukuru considered suicide:
I really should have died then, Tsukuru often told himself. Then this world, the one in the here and now, wouldn’t exist. It was a captivating, bewitching thought. The present world wouldn’t exist, and reality would no longer be real. As far as this world was concerned, he would simply no longer exist—just as this world would no longer exist for him.
Tsukuru started seeing himself as colorless while in high school. He and four other students at his high school formed a tightly-knit, almost inseparable group. The other four all had colors in their names; Tsukuru is the odd man out and as the others assume their colors as nicknames, he inevitably feels left out. And this colors (forgive the pun) his own self-image in a very powerful way. He perceives himself as colorless in fact, not just in name. Each of the other four has some outstanding attribute; he can see none in himself. His one distinctive is a fascination with railway stations, something he does not consider worthy of any mention. He is almost overwhelmingly average and can’t even understand why the other four want anything to do with him. But they do.
Until the day they don’t. And then, like so many teenage break-ups, it is vicious. Tsukuru, alone of the five, has left his home town Nagoya after high school to pursue his education. The reason is simple: there just aren’t very many places you can go to study railway station design. He comes back home on breaks and picks up with his friends right where he left off. And then one time they all refuse to take his calls until one of them angrily phones and tells him to never bother them again. He gives no reason and seems insulted that Tsukuru professes not to know what has triggered their decision. He slides into profound depression, loses a lot of weight, and lives life as an automaton, longing for death. He eventually snaps out of it, but nothing will ever be the same.
Another friendship he strikes up with a younger student also ends abruptly and inexplicably and Tsukuru is yet again perplexed, although not as deeply this time. And he never again forms a close attachment to anyone. And the years pass, with Franz Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage as their soundtrack. He has a recording of it that he listens to constantly, especially the piece “Le mal du pays” which means “homesickness”, which is surely not coincidental. Tsukuru, although superficially successful, is lost, and longs to find his way home.
It takes a new love interest, one who finally sparks a deep longing in him, to push him to look up his old friends and find out what really happened. And so, almost surprised himself, he does. And he starts getting answers. And he must rethink who he is, who he has been, who he will be. Will he accept to remain colorless?