Subtly and patiently delving into the troubled mind of his title character, Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, The Colorless Tsukuru and his Years of Pilgrimage, beautifully explores isolation, abandonment and confusion.
Tsukuru Tazaki was twenty when his four closest friends inexplicably abandon him.
In school, Tsukuru and his friends “were a perfect combination.” They felt complete together and formed deep emotional connections.
However, Tsukuru did sometimes feel left out, as he experienced an undercurrent of worthlessness. Tsukuru was the only one without a colour in his name. His friends’ strong personalities all matched their colourful names: Aka, red, boldly exuberant. Ao, blue, quietly brilliant. Shiro, white, beautifully elegant. And Kuro, black, who always made the group laugh.
When Tsukuru is the only member of the group to attend university in a different city, he assured himself that his group was so close, they would not crumble as a result. But, returning to his hometown, Tsukuru is inexplicably ostracised from the group. He barely seeks an explanation; instead, he slips into darkness:
“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying…Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution.”
“Something must be blocking the normal flow of motions, warping my personality. But Tsukuru couldn’t tell whether this blockage came about when he was rejected by his four friends, or whether it was something innate, a structural issue unrelated to the trauma he’d gone through.”
In his late thirties, he begins dating Sara, who notices an emotional deficit in him. Although he is convinced that the intervening years have resolved him of torment, Sara notices that this pain is still present:
“Maybe inside the wound, under the scab, the blood is still silently flowing.”
The novel details Tsukuru’s “pilgrimage.” Sara encourages him to meet each of his old friends, who reveal the shocking truth about the soul-wrenching abandonment in their youth.
Regular Murakami readers would recognise the themes; everything Murakami writes seems to be tinged with isolation, abandonment and confusion. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) and Kafka on the Shore (2002), the protagonists are deeply affected by their abandonment, which acts as an impetus for the novels’ plots.
But while Wind-Up Bird and Kafka are tinged with Murakami’s typical science fiction style, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage relies far less on the fantastical. Tsukuru’s encounters with old friends were sincere and emotional. In the absence of the staples of Murakami’s literary canon (talking cats and parallel universes, as slightly absurd examples), the characters’ raw emotions are revealed without much pretence.
My favourite scene involves Tsukuru’s visit to Kuro’s home in Finland. Surrounded by white birch trees and a mustard-coloured fishing boat, Kuro’s secluded lakehouse home exudes a patient and reassuring silence. Here, Kuro explains the past, slowly and delicately touching on naivety, fear and mental instability.
Tsukuru’s visit to Finland is a perfect juxtaposition of past and present, with the uncertainty of old propelled into a comforting and safe family life. In the present, Kuro regrets her actions. Like Tsukuru, she still has pain coursing through her, though she is years removed from the source. Meeting Tsukuru again allowed her to begin resolution.
Of course some unresolved plot lines were irritating: an unsolved murder, questions of sexuality and unanswered questions about a relationship. To me, though, the novel is simply a slice of the protagonist’s life. By leaving questions left unanswered, it mirrors the uncertainty in all of life and the questions that remain unanswered in real life.