Cover of book: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

To open a book by Haruki Murakami is to be confronted by the perennial question of translation. Faced with the author’s combination of light-as-air whimsy and metaphysical dolours, fantastic imagination and deadpan realism, you begin to wonder whether the Murakami reaching English-speaking readers is the same author who has inspired a wide and passionate Japanese readership.

Could it be that the culture and the linguistic field within which his works are generated is so alien that any translation is closer to fresh creation than adaptation? Have we made a virtue of this misunderstanding and raised him up as a fetish-figure of literary Otherness?

Though to be fair, Colorless Tsukuru dials down the weirdness quotient considerably when compared with 2011’s 1Q84. Just as that monumental novel was shaped in accordance with a Western classical piece – Janáček’s raucous Sinfonietta, whose fanfares performed with 15 extra trumpets were described by one Murakami admirer as sounding like five songs “fighting for supremacy inside an empty paint can” – Colorless Tsukuru adopts the watercolour melancholy of Franz Liszt’s suites for piano, Années de pèlerinage, and in particular the passage titled Le mal du pays, or Homesickness, as its standard.

A tone poem, then, referring to European Romanticism (specifically Goethe’s novels of self-realisation beginning with Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), whose minimalism renders this novel very different in every respect to its predecessor, except in two important ways. 1Q84 was a novel in which twin universes jostled for narrative space, and it is fair to say that Colorless Tsukuru gestures towards a shadow reality, albeit in more strictly realistic terms. It is in dreams, rather than any explicitly outlined alternate world, that our hero’s progress plays out.

Both novels, too, are existential detective stories of a kind. In this instance, it is Tsukuru Tazaki who dons the coat, hat and gun, and goes in search of clues that might resolve a 16-year-old cold case. Tsukuru is an unlikely gumshoe, however, and his efforts directed towards a banal instance of social exclusion. Years before, a group of school friends banded together and informed him that, though the five of them – three boys, two girls, all upper-middle-class students from the regional city of Nagoya – had been boon companions throughout their teens, they no longer wished to have any contact with him.

Tsukuru, in his mid-30s when the narrative opens, is utterly unmade by this shock announcement. A student in Tokyo at the time, he makes no further effort to contact his four friends and descends into a fugue state for many months, trembling on the edge of suicide or madness before gradually returning to a semblance of health. He is not the same person, however, gaunt and intense rather than pleasant and somewhat boring, and the years that follow are shaped by his outcast status.

When we first meet Tsukuru, he has made a life for himself whose comforts lie in the limited requirements he makes of the world. He lives alone, has a job designing train stations that fills his days and a new girlfriend, Sara, to whom he is drawn. She apparently has strong feelings for him, yet she senses that some part of Tsukuru is being withheld. When he admits the inexplicable rupture of his tight social group as a young man she asks that, as a condition of their deepening relationship, he renews contact with his four lost friends and finds out what it was that suddenly cancelled their affection for him.

The remainder of the narrative is given over to Tsukuru’s efforts to discover what happened all those years before. And though the story unfolds in a relatively sober, ordinary, if intermittently engaging way, there is no escaping the penumbra of oddity falling over Murakami’s work.

For starters, all of Tsukuru’s friends bear names that refer to colours – only he does not. A loaded symbolic equation is laid out and pursued with a certain obviousness throughout the book. As Tsukuru admits, his lack of confidence emerges from the sense of being an ontological featherweight:

I have no sense of self. I have no personality, no brilliant color. I have nothing to offer. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there’s nothing inside.

But it is not only Tsukuru’s problem; it is ours, too. His rudderless wanderings, his passivity and general affectlessness do not permit the reader to fill him with some substance of their own. Rather we are enervated alongside him, and no amount of residual interest in what took place all those years ago can overcome our sense that Tsukuru is as colourless as he claims to be. There are moments when the narrative makes feints at some larger meaning; supernatural possibilities are raised and then dropped, as though the author himself could not overcome the desultory atmosphere he created. Mostly we trundle alongside Tsukuru, begging him, like some fading half-marathon runner, to pick up the pace, or at least make it over the line.

But once again, though translator Philip Gabriel has doubtless done a fantastic job (Murakami has always attracted first-rate “Englishers”), the final product is mystifying. Is the flaw in this novel – its symbolic obviousness, its curious lack of electricity – a fault of the author, or is it an unfortunate and unavoidable result of rendering one text in one language, into a form uncongenial to it?

No one may gainsay the discipline, or the pan-cultural enthusiasm, or indeed the moral clarity that Murakami has brought to the business of making fiction over the decades. What may be questioned, however, is our ability to adjudicate on its final worth.  AF

Harvill Secker, 304pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 16, 2014 as "Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage".

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