A new book by Haruki Murakami has become a bit like a new Martin Amis – those people who like him quietly get excited, those people who don’t start to rumble and carry on. There are those who dismiss Murakami because he is a popular novelist (and after all, how can a popular novelist be taken seriously?!?), those who dismiss him because they think he’s a bit New Agey (a bit Paulo Coehlo, a bit Banana Yoshimoto), those who find his interest in such things as dreams and ‘temporal spaces’ to be annoying. There are those who find his prose a bit stilted, and wonder about whether it’s actually Murakami or the translator. There are those, also, who just don’t get it, who just don’t see what the point of his books are. There is nothing in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage likely to dissuade the haters from hating. If you’re a fan, though, if you’re interested in what he does, in where he’s up to, in what he’s trying to accomplish, then there is much here that is fascinating and compelling.
Our eponymous hero is a 36 year old man who works on train stations. As a child he dreamed of building train stations (his name means ‘to make’, it was the only thing his father really gave him, apart from the condo in which he lives) – and it is disappointing to him that he doesn’t actually build the train stations, merely tweak and improve existing structures – but he appreciates that many people don’t get to work on things that interest him so he counts his blessings, for the most part. He is lonely though, and somewhat self-deprecating. He doesn’t think he’s all that. When he was young, he had four friends, each of whom had a colour in their name (and he didn’t, hence the ‘colorless’ of the title) – and they were tight until one day they rejected him, completely and utterly and without a word of explanation. At the time their rejection almost killed him (he thinks). He lost couldn’t eat, lost weight, went joylessly through the motions of life. His face changed shape, his body changed shape, his mother could hardly recognise him.
The 36 year old Tsukuru meets a woman called Sarah and she encourages him to go back and hunt down his former friends to find out what actually went on. Why did they reject him? She senses there is some blockage in him, something that he needs to resolve, something that the answer to the question might help with. Tsukuru himself isn’t completely au fait with the modern world but Sarah helps, using Google and Facebook and the like to hunt down details. Tsukuru then takes this information and goes off in search of answers. His search allows Murakami to riff on modern Japanese society a little (one of his former friends sells cars, one of his former friends is a management guru sort, providing training to corporate warriors), as does the character of Tsukuru himself (Tsukuru is fond of sitting in train stations, it calms him to watch the world go by, and Murakami observing crowds makes for some good scenes). There is a mystery at the heart of the book (his friends cut him off as the result of an accusation, one of his friends was murdered in the intervening period) that Murakami fans will be unsurprised to learn is largely unresolved (some questions always remain unanswered in Murakami novels).
There is also a slight return of the kinds of weird sidestepping into possible other worlds we experienced in IQ84 – in that Tsukuru has dreams that reflect in some way the accusations that have been made – and readers of IQ84 will be asking themselves did Tsukuru really do what he has been accused of, albeit in this temporal space? It is a question Tsukuru asks himself. One of his friends has moved to Finland with her husband and their children and the she turns the question back on herself. The answer is a shrug, of course. A maybe. A possibly. A what if. Again, though, transplanting the action to Finland (Tsukuru has never been abroad before, and he is struck by how foreign places are both similar and different to what you know) makes for a curiously different Murakami book.
Lots of reviewers have commented on the brevity of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage alongside IQ84, as if IQ84 is the longest in a line of mammoth texts and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is the exception. The truth is, though, that IQ84 is as typical of Murakami’s output (at least in terms of length) as Underworld is typical of DeLillo. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is far more typical. Certain other reviewers have taken issue with the translation and when I think back over previous Murakami books I’ve read I remember feeling let down by books like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and, to a lesser extent, Kafka on the Shore (and I blamed the translation for not bringing the book to life for me) – but I didn’t feel that disappointment this time out. I read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage over the course of a day and I felt and feel it was a day well spent.
Any Cop?: If you like where Murakami went to in IQ84, I’m sure you’ll get along with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami fans who didn’t get along with IQ84 might find their love of his books revived by Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. If Murakami doesn’t float your boat, you are free to continue as you were. And if you’ve yet to dabble with Murakami, you could do a lot worse than start here.