Two thousand and nine was a good year to be a Haruki Murakami fan. Seven years after writing his last epic novel, “Kafka on the Shore,” with only the bite-sized 2004 “afterdark” to tide over his readership, the author published the massive two-volume “1Q84.” Looking back now, it’s also clear that Murakami was in between two crests of his career.
In 1987, he went from a well-known niche author to a pop-culture rock star in Japan with the release of “Norwegian Wood.” With the novels that followed he then went on to gain global popularity, being translated into over 40 languages around the world, and settled into stardom abroad with a stint as a writer in residence at Princeton University and life as a literary recluse in Japan. With “1Q84,” publishers kept a tight seal on the content of the story to prevent the kind of leaks that occurred prior to the release of “Kafka on the Shore,” and the secrecy fueled curiosity about the book.
Yet, despite his stardom and the anticipation surrounding “1Q84,” before the release of that novel Murakami had, in a sense, become obscurely popular in Japan; many knew his name and some read his books, but it was far from the days of his “Norwegian Wood” fame. I lived and worked in Tokyo at the time and as an unabashed Murakami fanboy I was looking forward to the release of “1Q84”; I even took the day off work to celebrate the event. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when I left my office in Shimbashi, Tokyo, on the Wednesday before the official Friday release, and discovered that a bookstore around the corner had put the book on display two days early. Instead of herds of Murakami fans ravenously waiting in line, there was no one there except a few people standing reading comics and magazines. I was the only one who even seemed to notice the novel. I hesitantly bought a copy, thinking that I might get caught for having the book early, and rushed home.
As has been well covered, the book exploded, selling out several print runs. Japanese publishers could barely meet the demand and overseas fans were forced to wait impatiently and wonder when it would be translated — though when it was finally released in English it received mixed reviews. The critics in Japan were more favorable.
With the attention that “1Q84” earned him, it was unlikely that the plot of his latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” would leak out. As with the third volume of “1Q84,” which Murakami added a year after the initial two volumes were released, booksellers held midnight release parties, which caught the eye of the media.
I preordered my copy online, along with 20,000 others on Amazon.jp (an unprecedented number in Japan) — then I waited. The book shipped from Osaka midday on Thursday, April 11, a day before the official release, and I eagerly tracked it online as it passed through Hong Kong and Cincinnati and arrived at my doorstep in New Orleans on April 15. I’ve been tearing through it ever since.
One of the things that brought Murakami to people’s attention in the 1980s was his distinct first-person boku narrator, but it is immediately apparent from the first sentence that “Tsukuru Tazaki” continues a trend of third-person narration that began with “1Q84”; the 2009 novel was his first told completely in third person.
As can be extrapolated from the title, the book tells the story of a man named Tsukuru Tazaki. Tsukuru is a native of Nagoya, and during the summer after his second year of college, he finds himself literally consumed by a death-obsessed depression when his four closest high-school friends tell him they no longer want to see him. Along with those friends (two men and two women), Tsukuru had made up a five-person “collective entity” that formed while volunteering for a school project. Tsukuru always felt slightly out of place since he was the only one of the five without a kanji for a color in his name (hence he was “colorless”), but they continued to volunteer teaching children and then became inseparable, hanging out together “as much as possible.” After his friends abandon him Tsukuru goes through a six-month period of mourning and he is forced to negotiate the world on his own. He never sees his friends again, and when he asks what happened that made them not want to see him, one friend tells him, “You should ask yourself.”
So, for the past 16 years Tsukuru has searched within himself for the answer to that question. In the present-day of the novel, 36-year-old Tsukuru designs train stations as a job and is on a date with 38-year-old travel agent Sara. During the date, he attempts to communicate his awkward, friendless history with her. The date doesn’t end as well as a previous one had, which concerns Tsukuru. Luckily, Sara tells him to ask her out again.
Thus, despite the shift in point of view, Murakami has established a very similar story to many of his past works. A quiet male protagonist goes through a traumatic experience that forces him to question the existence of an end-all-be-all connection with another person (in this case persons). He then attempts to navigate the world on his own. In the past, Murakami protagonists might have put on a jazz record and poured a whisky, content to ignore their troubles.
Murakami often named his earlier protagonists Toru. Translator and critic Jay Rubin has noted that this is a homonym for the Japanese verb “to pass through” and has been written with the kanji character that means “to receive,” implying “both activity and passivity.” With this new novel, however, Murakami has chosen a new verb for his main character, one that is far more active than the past: tsukuru, to make, build or create. Perhaps it suggests that while Tsukuru has been somewhat complacent until this point in his life, he may have to construct a solution to the problem.
Will Tsukuru learn why his friends cut him off? Did he actually do anything to them? Will he find a connection with Sara? I won’t find out for another 320 pages. I’ve made it through 50 so far and have my work cut out for me for the next few days.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5