Jan 20, 2015

[Books] Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Given how much I'm into rather focused genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy titles, my appreciation for the works of Haruki Murakami is a bit of an aberration. You're never really sure what you're going to get with every new book and I guess that is part of the whole brilliance of the discover process. And while a few books have recurring characters like the Sheep Man, they mostly exist as individual adventures of their own.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of his more recent releases that finally got translated to English mid-way through 2014. Unlike most of his books, this one seemed really light on the fantasy elements and instead is mostly a straight up exploration of one man's childhood trauma leading to the discovery of a greater mystery of sorts And while the fantasy elements have always made his books pretty interesting and unique, they by no means define what makes his books so powerful.

This was a really thoughtful piece and one that left me thinking about my own school days immediately after finishing the whole thing.

Synopsis: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a Haruki Murakami novel originally released in Japanese in 2013 and in English in 2014. The original Japanese version sold 1 million copies in its first month.

The story obvious revolves around our titular protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36 year old engineer who designs train stations for a living. He has started seeing a woman named Sara but she has sensed that there's something holding him back somehow. After some coaxing, she manages to get him to talk about his younger years and there they find the potential problem. In high school, Tsukuru had 4 very close friends - Kei "Aka (Red)" Akamatsu, Yoshio "Ao (Blue)" Oumi, Yuzuki "Shiro (White)" Shirane, and Eri "Kuro (Black)" Kurono. Since Tsukuru didn't have a color-related nickname, they ended up calling him the "colorless" member of their circle.

When college came around, Tsukuru left their hometown of Nagoya in order to pursue his dream of studying to be a train station designer. But some time during his second year of college, his four friends cut all ties with him and refused to speak to him any further. no explanation was given for this complete and total termination of their friendship and the even affected him severely. Tsukuru would go on the rest of his life never knowing why that had happened and thus having difficulty opening up to other people. And thus Sara encourages him to finally go back to Nagoya and try to find out what had happened.

On the surface, the story felt pretty simple and drastically normal when compared to Murakami's other books. There are a few strange dream sequences here and there, but it doesn't seem like too much of his usual brand of surrealism really crept into the main story this time. I don't know if I necessarily feel bad about this shift from his usual tone.

If anything, it did provide a different contrast to things that certainly tried to push the main point of the story. Without the elements of fantasy and whimsy, you're left with a pretty personal story. Here we take a pretty intimate look at the like of Tsukuru and the significant impact the lost of his special circle of friends had on his life. This isn't just your usual case of friends growing away from one another as a natural consequence of time and growing up in general. This was a stark shift, the loss of something powerful and special and that would significantly affect anyone.

The book leaves a lot of things to mystery given the major focus on Tsukuru. Sara is largely a mystery to us readers beyond the limited interactions with Tsukuru here and there. We don't know most of her story and what she sees in this shy man who loves train stations so much. We don't know more about Tsukuru's high school friends other than the colors that they represented. And yes, even the ending will leave you wondering what the heck is supposed to happen next.

And in this sense, the book is truly a Murakami work. There's a careful elegance to way he crafts stories and this one has his fingerprints all over it. The way that each character seems to remain just at the edge of our vision - just clear enough to recognize but not close enough to see the details - this is largely what keeps things mysterious. That can be frustrating to most readers, but it sort of reflects that he doesn't want to drown you in details. You see and experience this world mainly from Tsukuru's perspective and that means that we see only what he sees. And for a man who is as introverted as he is, it's only natural that people remain somewhat vague and indistinguishable from others.

The book is dominated by this sense of loneliness and longing that pretty much defines Tsukuru's life. And as much as many of Murakami's protagonists somewhat feel this way as well, Tsukuru is a particularly despondent character who seems significantly sad. You can only hope that he gets a really good ending to make up for things, but anyone who has read Murakami books before would know that such an outcome is unlikely.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is an interesting, thoughtful novel that can be pretty sad, but ultimately pretty determined as well. Tsukuru eventually becomes a man on a mission, even when the prize isn't exactly clear, but at least he tries. Thus the book gets 4 moments of Tsukuru thinking about his childhood out of a possible 5.

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