Book Review

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage': A lean Murakami (with the usual love, music, dreams, sex)

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Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most popular author, and its most influential and imitated writer. In his home country, the publication of a new Murakami book is a wildly anticipated event: it would be hard to imagine equivalent excitement in the U.S. for any book that didn’t feature wizards or teen vampires.

By Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95)

In the week following last year’s midnight release in Japan of his latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” more than a million copies were sold.

Mr. Murakami’s huge global readership and reputation ─ his books have been translated into more than 50 languages and he has received numerous international honors – have made him a perennial favorite of British odds makers to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Every year, on the night the Nobel award is announced, “Harukists,” his most devoted fans, gather in bars in Tokyo and around the world to await (and hopefully toast) the selection.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki,” Mr. Murakami’s 14th work of fiction, may surprise some of these ardent followers, since it represents a sharp departure from the magic realism and bewildering story lines of his most recent novels. The book is spare and (for the most part) realistic, more fable than fantasy, its style reminiscent of the immensely popular “Norwegian Wood,” published 27 years ago.

However, the Murakami signature themes and devices are all in evidence: alienation and loneliness, a passive male protagonist’s search for self, the elusive nature of lasting love, music, dreams, sex. (Sex in dreams might be a separate category, taking center stage in this book.)

There are also the usual references to western, often American culture: these characters may live in Tokyo, but they eat meatloaf, drink Cutty Sark, and listen to Liszt.

Through a characteristically simple, often flat third party narration, we are introduced to the title character, a 36-year-old designer of train stations, outwardly successful but unable to move beyond an adolescent trauma to live a full life. Tsukuru’s perception of himself as “colorless” and unworthy began with the sudden and unexplained rejection, when he was a 19-year-old college student, by four friends with whom he had formed a close, supportive bond while in high school.

Each of the four friends’ surnames contained a color, such as “blue sea” or “white root,” and each became known in the group by a nickname: Mr. Blue, Miss White, etc. But Tsukuru’s surname ─ meaning “maker” or “builder” ─ had no color, which subtly set him apart from the others. When he was later cut off from the group, he spun into a 6-month near-death depression, convinced that he lacked any distinguishing or redeeming characteristics, that “something wasn’t exactly right with him.” In Tsukuru’s (and Mr. Murakami’s) world, language and names have strong and often predictive significance.

While Tsukuru does manage to recover from his depression, in part with the help of a friend, Haida (whose name means “gray field”), his existential funk and disconnection to life continues.

Just when we want to shake him and say, “Get a life” (literally!), a character in the book does it for us. Sara, Tsukuru’s competent new girlfriend, tells him that after 16 years of obsessing, “isn’t it time to finally get over it.”

The most entertaining sections of the book follow. With Sara’s help, Tsukuru sets off to track down his “colorful” former friends to finally uncover the reason for the rejection that has (dis) colored and defined his life . I won’t spoil the mystery, but his pilgrimage and reunions with his friends, which take him as far as Finland, lead to a shocking revelation.

These encounters provide great opportunities for Mr. Murakami to once again comment on the materialism of modern Japan. One of the friends has become a successful Lexus salesman.

He tells us that “Lexus” is a made-up word that “sounds high-class.” Another is a motivational corporate trainer, who explains, “We want to create a workforce that does what their company wants them to do, yet still believes they’re independent thinkers.”

As in so many of Mr. Murakami’s works, music plays a key role. Again recalling “Norwegian Wood,” the title of this book is drawn from a musical composition, in this case Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage.” Haida loves this piece of music, and he re-introduces Tsukuru to one of the piano suites, the haunting “Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness). “Miss White,” a beautiful member of the adolescent clique, had frequently played this music, and the piece is used as a musical madeleine throughout the book. Mr. Murakami’s rich description of the evocative and nostalgic music compelled me to seek out the recording.

With the central mystery solved, Tsukuru seems poised to move ahead and build a real life with Sara. But Mr. Murakami is not one for tying a neat bow on a story; we have learned some important things but must accept that we can’t know it all.

Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside.

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