Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

i’ve removed the star-rating thingy from this bit of commentary (i won’t call it a review) because it somehow seems like basting tapioca on a rocketship–you know, just entirely not applicable.

i’m really not at all sure what to make of this latest of my idol’s works… so i want to write about the book, a little, and about idolatry.

my first thought on finishing this book is that the best word to describe it is weightless. i don’t mean that as a diss, necessarily. it’s not like reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or even Kafka on the Shore, though–those books had some heft. this story is very small–a man’s pilgrimage to find out why he had been banished from a tight circle of high school friends, and how he begins to find his way back from colorlessness. there’s very little in the way of typical Haruki-kun weirdness here–no fish typhoons, no sheep men, no women with magical ears. it’s quite possibly the most straightforward of his works apart from his nonfiction.

post-banishment, Tsukuru moves through the world as unattached to anything as a person could get and still be alive. even nutjobs have a cat, you know? Tsukuru has only his work, and while it brings him satisfaction, it doesn’t require love from him. his few relationships are similarly pleasant and non-committal. it’s as if Tsukuru himself were nothing more than a cloud in a summer sky. until he one day recognizes a catalyst and begins to search his past.

i won’t spoiler the conclusion, but let me say again that it felt weightless to me. weightless isn’t always a bad thing, though–some of the most beautiful and finely-wrought things are weightless: beautifully-woven silk, a butterfly’s wings. what i’m puzzling over tonight is whether this novel is finely-woven silk, strong and enduring, or a cloud.

i’ve been a Haruki Murakami fan since 1989, when i first spotted one of his novels in a train station in Oyama City, Japan. (it was a cheap Study English! pocket book of A Wild Sheep Chase, and i fell head over heels in literary love.) Haruki-kun was then nearly unknown in the US–he’d had a few pieces translated in the New Yorker, but apart from those rarefied airs, his works were barely a blip on the reading public’s radar.

now, of course, Haruki-kun is so big he makes Godzilla look like a beetle. people get rabid about him–those ready to pull out their sniper rifles on the Nobel committee if he doesn’t get one next time, and those who reflexively trash him because he’s probably the world’s single most famous literary writer. Haruki-kun could publish a shopping list (and has) and the literary world would swoon. so the question for this book is: is it silk, or is it a shopping list?

at the moment i can’t tell. i can’t get past my deeply-ingrained Haruki-love to see clearly. there are some serious infelicities in this book–it can be terribly repetitive, it tells you how to feel rather than letting you into that space on your own steam, some phrasings seem forced and clunky. it’s almost like removing all the weirdness has left behind something colorless. at one point in the novel Tsukuru complains of being an “empty vessel”: “I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there’s nothing inside.” To which his interlocutor eventually replies: “So why not be a completely beautiful vessel? The kind people feel good about, the kind people want to entrust with precious belongings.” i wonder whether this novel is that vessel, into which readers and the literary establishment will carefully wrap up their own stories, invest their own meanings.

or is it? in some respects this novel seems to be the very delicately-rendered, emotional music of an apparently emotionless man. which is a pretty neat trick to pull off, when you think about it. the emotional consequences of betrayal and dissociation are thoroughly rendered here. the struggle to reconnect, or at least to find a desire to reconnect, are also on show. and in a world being poisoned by an inability to connect, laying out the case for doing so in literature is no small accomplishment.

so, not unusually for me and Haruki’s books, i’m left with a lot of questions. it’s a normal state of things, for Haruki-kun’s works and i. i used to feel that Haruki-kun’s works had some almost mystical meaning that i was simply too stupid to understand (i still perseverate from time to time on that damned star-backed sheep). now i don’t know if i’m stupid, or Haruki-kun’s works are overrated. both could be true. in any case i know i’ll still be first in line to buy his next book, and i know it will leave me with questions i’ll never have answered. maybe that’s the best fine literature can do, and on the whole, it’s a pretty neat trick to pull off.

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