So, here we are back in the intriguing, irritating, sometimes dubious world of Haruki Murakami’s imagination. A world where the entirely mundane and the startlingly enigmatic are used to chart the life of loner, who’s brimful with sadness and existential angst, and haunted by weird, and weirdly meaningful dreams and nightmares.
The alienated hero of Murakami’s latest book, which sold over a million copies in the first week of its release in Japan, is the titular Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – whose world crumbles to dust when his four best friends “announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him ever again. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask”. His “pilgrimage” is to unravel the mystery behind his abandonment.
It’s a beguilingly simple idea; a journey into the emotions and thoughts of a man who is wholly transformed by loss, who for six months after his companions ditch him sleepwalks through life, “as if he had already died but not yet noticed it”. Tsukuru stops eating, dreams that “twilight birds with razor-sharp beaks came to scoop out his flesh” and is convinced that the old Tsukuru is dead, “that in the savage darkness he’d breathed his last and was buried in a small clearing in the forest.” It’s an extreme reaction, an eerily surreal description of that transformation.
Less convincing are the friends who cause all this trauma; they’re a pretty unappealing bunch, with their upper-middle-class families, professional dads and stay-at-home mums, and worthy volunteer work with deprived children. There’s Ao, sporty and a bit dull; Aka, short, super smart; Kuro, not beautiful but “with a mind as quick as her tongue” and Shiro, “tall and slim, with a model’s body and the graceful features of a traditional Japanese doll”, who likes animals and playing the piano. And yet Murakami graces them with some sense of loveliness – their names translate into colours – red pine, white root, blue sea, black sea. Tsukuru’s name is colourless – which contributes to his run-of-the-mill attitude to himself as he continually ponders his outsider status, “everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in colour” in their close-knit group; that and the fact that he’s very interested in train stations.
Tsukuru, who’s in his thirties when the book opens, has been living a kind of half-life since the rupture. And it is only when prompted by a girlfriend, Sara Kimoto, with her “low-key refined clothes”, that he decides to find out just what went wrong. You can’t help but agree with Sara’s summation of the situation: “If it had been me, I would have stayed there and not left until I got to the bottom of it …. You can hide memories, suppress them, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.” So, off he goes to track down his erstwhile companions. And in a book that’s peppered with portents, (including some very unerotic sex dreams), cryptic stories about death, and philosophical musing, and taking its name from Le mal du from Franz Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage, “a quiet sorrowful piece” about homesickness and melancholy, the explanation for his expulsion is brutal and disconcerting in the extreme.
Tsukuru meets Ao first, who’s become a Lexus dealer (there’s lots of dull details about cars), then heads over to Aka, who programmes people to follow orders in the corporate world (a sinister amalgam of ideas from religious cults, personal development seminars, Nazi recruitment and books on psychology). Then he travels to Finland, where Kuro, now known as Eri, lives with her husband and children and makes her living by creating beautiful pottery .... All of them tell Tsukuru the same story: that something horrific has happened; that one of the group has accused Tsukuru of an unforgiveable crime; and that they all felt morally obliged to abandon him without ever telling him why. Given the heart-breaking revelations about Shiro’s fate, and some insightful thoughts on the nature of guilt, grief and depression, it seems wildly inappropriate for the Eri episode to continue with a discussion about how much she fancied Tskuru when they were younger as some sort of reassuring sop to his self-obsessed maundering – “I couldn’t imagine anyone saying they loved me, or wanting to be my girlfriend ….”
It is an uneasy book, strangely beautiful at times, occasionally intensely moving, but sometimes frustratingly conventional and emotional vapid. Murakami’s simple, stripped-back sentences can be spell-binding, with the hushed quality of magic, of dark enchantments, at other times they are prosaic to the point of boredom. The extraordinary and the very ordinary live side by side in this novel of loneliness and loss, but unfortunately, not entirely successfully.
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