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Haruki Murakami’s new book peels back the layers of friendship

by Daniel Morales

Special To The Japan Times

Haruki Murakami has made his name in the West with the translations of his tome-like novels, but it was 1987′s relatively slim Norwegian Wood that made him famous in Japan. And his latest big hit here is similarly slender.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami Translated by Philip Gabriel.
Knopf, Fiction.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which is released in English this week, sold a million copies in its first week when it was released in Japan last year, but it is a short book that favors the realism of “Norwegian Wood” over the lengthy metaphysical adventures of his other novels. Almost as if to disguise this fact, publisher Knopf has released the translation in a short, squat format that draws out the page count to nearly 400 pages. First editions will also include stickers that readers can use to decorate the cover.

Despite these tricks, the novel is one of Murakami’s better works of recent years. He succeeds in conveying the intense emotional landscape of the titular Tsukuru, a Nagoya-born “millennial” whose given name — a homophone for “to build” or “to construct” — corresponds with his work as a train-station designer.

Tsukuru grows up with four close, “colorful” friends: two men and two women who all have kanji for colors in their surnames and who refer to themselves by those colors. Aka (Red) and Ao (Blue) are the men, respectively a sharp intellect and the rugby captain, and Shiro (White) and Kuro (Black) are the women, the former willowy and quiet, the latter more full-figured and quick-witted.

The five of them meet in high school while volunteering and naturally end up forming a “an orderly, harmonious community.” While Tsukuru always feels that he is somewhat lacking and “colorless” compared with his friends, he also feels fulfilled and in the right spot.

That is, until the summer of his sophomore year of college, when he is summarily rejected from the group. His friends ignore his phone calls for days, and when he finally gets through to them, he pleads with Ao: “Tell me — what happened?” “You’d better ask yourself that,” Ao replies.

Tsukuru spends the next 16 years living with that question and suffering from the loss, which brings him to the present of the novel. Tsukuru is 36, living in Tokyo and working for a station-construction company. He has managed to survive the rejection but has lived a solitary existence.

Now, though, he is pursuing Sara Kimoto, a travel agent two years his senior. They’ve gone out a few times, become intimate and seem to like each other. His attraction to Sara is different from that of his past relationships, and Tsukuru is less eager to shrug off defeat.

The first half of the book is structured in typical Murakami fashion. The story jumps back and forth between the present with Sara and Tsukuru’s past as he experienced it: how he fell into a death-obsessed depression and lost 7 kg, how he pulled himself together and eventually met another colorful friend named Haida — a student at the same college whose name includes the kanji for the color gray — and how Haida, too, eventually disappeared.

In the present, Sara calls for a time-out in their burgeoning romance when she learns of his friends: “When we made love,” she says, “it felt like you were somewhere else. Somewhere apart from the two of us in bed. You were very gentle, and it was wonderful, but still …”

She senses something is holding Tsukuru back emotionally. Using her travel-agency abilities to locate the old friends and providing a romantic incentive for poor Tsukuru, Sara manages to get him out of his funk and on the road.

The second half of the novel, then, becomes a Murakami quest novel, as Tsukuru ventures back to Nagoya and even outside of Japan to discover the reason why he was rejected. Tsukuru finds, though, that life hasn’t been as easy on his friends as he had imagined.

Murakami makes use of many of his well-honed techniques: stories within stories and reality-bending dream sex. He also aligns the book with a piece of music, in this case “Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness)” from Franz Liszt’s “Annees de pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage).”

“Tsukuru Tazaki” does have its weaknesses. The twists in the second half of the book aren’t as shocking as those in Murakami’s past works. He also relies too much on narrative summary, which renders Tsukuru’s old friends thin in terms of a supporting cast. He tries to make up for this by adding in flashbacks later in the story, but this is too little, too late.

And, as with many Murakami protagonists, Tsukuru is frustrating. He is introspective and passive — but that may be what Murakami was going for. Tsukuru is a wounded, flawed character who finds it incredibly hard to love before he loses his friends, and even more so after the fact. It’s no wonder he finds comfort in artificial, inhuman things such as trains coming and going at Shinjuku Station.

Murakami seems to be commenting on how difficult it is to really know how another person feels, whether friend or lover, and he succeeds in dramatizing this through Tsukuru’s tortured point of view.

Readers shouldn’t expect firm resolution with Murakami, but the trip with Tsukuru is shorter and more controlled than the thousand endless pages with Tengo in 2009′s “1Q84.” Not Murakami’s finest, but far from his weakest.

  • Charlie Sommers

    I look forward to this book’s release in English with eagerness. I have read most of Murakami’s works and have thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. He is a story teller of the first magnitude.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    I think you will find it was Norwegian Wood that made him famous in the West too, not just Japan.

    • Daniel Morales

      I don’t think that’s true. “A Wild Sheep Chase,” “Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” “Dance Dance Dance” and “Wind-up Bird Chronicle” all were translated in the 80′s and 90s before “Norwegian Wood,” and I think it was “Wind-up Bird” that really brought him into the mainstream–it got featured in “The Hipster’s Handbook,” for better or worse.