Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

What an enjoyable read! Such a tightly plotted, expertly crafted book. It sounds so cliché and redundant to even say this at this point, but Murakami is truly a fiction master. From a writer’s perspective, this is the kind of book that makes you shake your head and silently mouth the words Damn. He makes it look SO easy… but it is so not.

This book draws you in a with a simple mystery that in typical Murakami style gets more and more layered and complex as the book progresses. We meet our titular hero, Tsukuru Tazaki, during a time in his life when he is experiencing profound melancholy, almost to the point of suicidal depression (this was a part of the book I really enjoyed–it’s strange that I can’t think of more examples in fiction where authors try to depict melancholy… I guess because it’s very difficult to capture… so static and numbing). We then jump into the future, when he’s on a date with a woman, and via his conversations with her we learn that this intense period of melancholy was due to him being abruptly cut off by his four best friends from high school. These four friends each had different names that mean different colors in Japanese: red, blue, white, black (colors that are all opposite from each other–this theme of balance & contrast comes up repeatedly throughout the book). Tsukuru’s name means “builder,” or “he who makes things” (something like that; I’m too lazy to flip through the novel and check right now). This is where the “Colorless Tsukuru” of the title comes from–not only does his name lack color, but he is constantly questioning his lack of color as a person… seeing himself as uninteresting and empty, a vessel who is constantly abandoned.

Anyway, so that’s one of the first things to respect about this novel: how the plot is kicked into high-gear in a classic, verging on detective fiction style. We have a mystery (why did Tsukuru’s friends cut him off?) and a motivation (the woman Tsukuru is on a date with tells him he needs to find out what happened, or else she won’t be able to date him since she senses there is a part of him that is closed-off and emotionless due to this incident). This is such a great way to make the reader want to keep reading–you want to find out the answer. I loved how I felt consistently surprised while reading this book, as though Murakami himself was discovering the story as he went along, as opposed to being heavy-handed about it.

The other thing I really respect about this book is the subplot that occurs early on, right before Tsukuru begins his quest to track down his four friends in their current day lives. I can see how some people might read this subplot and go WTF, but it reminded me of that part in Fargo when Frances McDormand goes out with that old friend of hers, who turns out to be a compulsive liar. It may initially seem to be a TOTALLY random divergence, like it has nothing to do with the main thread of the story, but then it actually provides essential knowledge and experience for the main character later on.

The seemingly random sub-plot I’m referring to deals with a friendship that Tsukuru forms with another guy, shortly after his friends abandon him. I can’t speak highly enough about the way this friendship is handled, and the way it foreshadows and hints at what becomes the biggest, most important question in the book (I won’t give away any spoilers, but the question has to do with one of the four friends in the group, in terms of her motivation and her ultimate fate). We aren’t given many definitive answers in this novel, but I definitely feel like Murakami gave me enough information to be able to draw my own (supernaturally-influenced) conclusions. It also helped that I was reminded of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and its theme of people’s subconscious emotional selves being projected as actual physical beings, running around and doing crazy-ass things (and now I really will say no more!).

The final chapter of this book dragged a little for me, as if Murakami couldn’t figure out how to end it. There are only so many pages of Tsukuru reflecting about his father in the train station that I was willing to read at that point. But on the whole I felt extremely satisfied but this novel, and really enjoyed reading it. I haven’t even gotten into the theme of balance that keeps popping up (the five friends are frequently compared to the five fingers on a hand, which is interesting since a lot of them end up in jobs that involve working with their hands–as a potter and pianist respectively). The theme of creation, or making things, was one I found really interesting. In a way this book reminded me most of Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I also love how mysteries are left unanswered (what’s with the theme polydactylism, or people with six fingers?! What was in the jar on top of the piano?!).

I highly recommend this book. A lot more enjoyable for me than 1Q84, which was respectably ambitious but if I’m honest I can barely remember anything about it now.

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4 Comments

Filed under books, IFFP, review

4 responses to “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

  1. A very thoughtful review. My own response was less generous but that just goes to show we are all different and that is a good thing.

    • thanks! yeah, i mean i definitely don’t think it’s like classic or vintage murakami, but it was escapist and pleasurable for what it was. i enjoyed it more than “1Q84” for sure.

  2. Tony

    I enjoyed this, but whether it gets into the top six depends very much on whether this is a good or mediocre IFFP year. So far, I’m not sure…

    • I know what you mean… I’ve only read four so far but have really enjoyed all of them; I feel like I’m going to have to shift gears soon and start becoming more critical…!

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