“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.”
So begins Haruki Murakami’s first novel since the bloat of the book many expected to be his magnum opus. Happily, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is essentially the inverse of IQ84. It’s short and sweet where that last was extended in its dejection; gently suggestive rather than frustratingly overbearing; and though the ending is a bit of bait and switch, it’s one which feels fitting, unlike IQ84’s dubious denouement.
If you were worried, as I was, that Murakami may have had his day, then rest assured: his new novel represents a timely reminder of the reasons you fell for his fiction in the first place.
As with almost every book to bear the international bestseller’s brand, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage immerses readers in the mindset of a single, emotionally crippled character; a man approaching middle age, in this case, whose major malfunction is made plain from the first page, as he reflects on his lowest moments:
There was an actual event that had led him to this place—this he knew all too well—but why should death have such a hold on him, enveloping him in its embrace for nearly half a year? Envelop—the word expressed it precisely. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, Tsukuru had fallen into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void.
But before this death, this darkness… life, and light. Light composed of the colours of his four best friends, with whom his life was intimately intertwined:
The two boys’ last names were Akamatsu—which means ‘red pine’—and Oumi—‘blue sea’; the girls’ family names were Shirane—‘white root’—and Kurono—‘black field’. Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this made his feel a little bit left out.
Not half as left out as he felt when, one day, they “announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask.”
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes place decades after this rejection.
Tsukuru, sadly, has lived a slight life since. Now thirty-six years old, and employed as an engineer for a railroad firm, he’s had a hard time opening up to anyone in the intervening period. He has no friends, and though he has been involved in a number of romantic relationships, his heart hasn’t been in any of them.
In short, Tsukuru is such a lonely soul that he’s sympathetic in spite of the anemic aspects of his character; that is to say, “there was not one single quality he possessed that was worth bragging about or showing off to others. At least that was how he viewed himself. Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.”
Sara doesn’t think so, though. She sees in Tsukuru a potential partner—albeit one weighed down by boundless baggage—and in her, he sees a woman he really wants to be with; the first in forever, it feels like. But before their relationship can move forward, he has to look backward. He has “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional.”
And as above, so below. The story may be slow in the unfolding, but once it gets going—once Tsukuru begins to engage with the world once more—Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is as emotionally engrossing as it is insightful intellectually. The magical realism Murukami is most known for is mostly missing, but there’s a mystery for Tsukuru to master, and much in the way of mundanity in the meantime.
An unappealing prospect, perhaps, however it’s here that the book is at its best, as it’s in the midst of this that its central character comes into his own. Tsukuru may be an empty vessel at the outset of the text, but over the course of a chain of conversations he’s filled up, measure by measure, to the extent that he has become one of Murukami’s most memorable leading men by the end—which I don’t want to dwell on, except to say that though it’s sure to leave some readers feeling cheated, there is closure where it counts, in terms of Tsukuru’s character.
At bottom, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a book about being human in a world that doesn’t give a fig about feelings. It’s about acceptance; youth and maturity; and “all the beautiful possibilities [that] have been swallowed up in the flow of time.” Plotwise, it’s got a lot in common with that Bill Murray movie, Broken Flowers, except the answers Tsukuru is searching for are rooted in something more significant than sex… though there’s a bit of that, to boot. This is, after all, a Murakami book.
That said, there aren’t any cats, or crazy people, or earlobes, even. The author has carefully corralled his quirks in order to refocus on the human element sorely lacking from his last vast narrative. To wit, with the hyperbolic problems of IQ84—and before that the blandness of After Dark—blessedly behind us, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage marks a moving new chapter in Haruki Murakami’s increasingly incredible career.
Only time will tell where he goes from here, and when, but I’ll be there, and then.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is available now from Knopf Doubleday (US) and Random House (UK).
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.