Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami
(translated by Philip Gabriel)
Straight off, I will say that I loved this character-driven story. Tazaki is just your average guy but he carries a lot of emotional baggage. He likes railway stations, he likes music, he plays sport and (we’ll come to this later because it has a lot to do with the plot) he likes girls. The biggest problem of all is his name; while his four best friends at high school have names that translate as colours, his does not! He sees himself as grey and uninteresting and has a very poor idea of his self worth.
One day, he takes a call from one of his friends, who tells him that none of the group wishes to see or have anything to do with him again. Instead of trying to find out why, he simply says OK and puts the phone down. He considers death and suicide but eventually decides to carry on with his life. Sixteen years later, he has become a competent engineer, building stations for a living. He begins a new relationship with Sara, a woman two years older than himself. Sara sees the worth in him but realises there are issues that need resolving before she can take their liaison to the next stage.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of those novels where to reveal too much of the plot would mean lots of spoilers. Suffice to say that Sara persuades Tazaki that he needs to find his old friends and ask them to explain why they rejected him. The answer, not unexpectedly, has to do with sex, and hinges on Tazaki’s relationship (real or imagined) with the two female members of his high school group. Regular readers of Murakami’s work may not be too shocked; he has a habit of weaving dreamlike fantasies into his novels. And in this case, though Tazaki is innocent of the charge brought against him, we (and he) are tempted to look for an explanation in the subliminal. However, despite subtle hints of some sinister force at work, Tazaki is driven to conclude that he is not such a colourless fellow after all.
To lovers of a nicely rounded romantic ending, the last chapter of the novel may be disappointing but I think it wraps up the character better than ‘happy ever after’ would do.
Whilst I’m sure that Mr Gabriel has made an excellent translation of the work, I do sometimes feel that Japanese literature does not translate well into English. There are complexities of the Japanese psyche, peculiar to their nation – such as ‘face’ and ‘worth’ – that are not easily understood by Europeans. The concepts of colour and number too have more powerful emotional associations in their culture and language than they do in ours.