Tsukuru Tazaki is part of a close quintet of middle-class, suburban students four of whom, by chance, have a surname associated with colour. Tazaki is delighted but slightly bewildered by the intensity of the bond, not least because he is “the only one in the group without anything special about him… there was not one single quality he possessed that was worth bragging about or showing off to others. At least that was how he viewed himself.” Conscious of his lack of “colour” he is content to stay on the edges of the group, an observer of his vibrant friends rather than an active contributor.
Unlike the others he leaves his home town to go to university in Tokyo but keeps in touch, returning often, easily picking up the relationship. Then one day, without warning or explanation, he finds himself expelled from the group and ostracised. Something terrible has happened which they cannot forgive. Efforts to discover what, are futile. The feedback, when he can get any, is that “he knows”.
Mystified, Tazaki is strangely acquiescent to his new fate as an outsider. Apparently reconciled to his aloneness, he converts his one passion, railways, into a successful career. He is as diligent and dogged a worker as he was a student. His personal life is a series of seemingly satisfying but eventually unsuccessful relationships. And increasingly, his thoughts and dreams are of death. Faced with another potential, and unbearable loss, he realizes that the key to any future lies in his past and the reason for his exile. He sets out to track down his four former friends.
Unlike some “serious” writers, Murakami pays as much attention to plot as he does to prose, and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is, essentially, a subtle mystery, as much about the complexities of the characters as the events. Some critics have complained that this mystery is never completely resolved, but I disagree. Sometimes there is no one, easy, answer. That is the solution.
As he often does, Murakami peppers Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki with modern cultural references like Barry Manilow and the Pet Shop Boys, slightly incongruous but reassuringly authentic. And, as he has done before, he adds a leitmotif; in this case Liszt’s Le Mal Du Pays. For me the book has shades of the sparseness of Norwegian Wood and the vulnerability of Kafka on the Shore but in a way that is beautifully all its own. One tiny little gripe (and it’s not about the cover which seems to have got some fans pretty hot under the collar); it was the fact that the publishers chose to print the English-language edition using American spellings (hence the Colorless in the title).
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years Of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami is translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and published by Alfred A Knopf. Haruki Murakami has published 13 works of fiction, nine novels and four collections of short stories, and two works of non-fiction. For more information go to Murakami’s official website. Read an interview with Murakami this week in New Yorker which also published one of his short stories, Scheherazade.