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Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami
There are two types of Haruki Murakami novels. One is the surreal story in full magical-realist style, narrated by an alienated urban man. The other type is the story of an alienated urban man with some surreal descriptions or anecdotes thrown in. Colourless is of the latter type, but I wish it was the former.
Tsukuru Tazaki, an alienated urban man living in Tokyo, has been emotionally paralysed ever since his college friends abandoned him without explanation. Spurred by a new girlfriend to get to the bottom of what happened, he tracks down his old friends, seeking closure.
Murakami is an author unafraid of wandering, and this novel is no exception. It meanders pleasurably through a cycle of set-piece scenes so ubiquitous in his books that the internet has invented a game called ‘Murakami Bingo’. There are scenes of people cooking, of people listening to jazz and classical music, of the narrator getting up in the morning, shaving, and masturbating.
A Murakami novel without these kinds of scenes is unthinkable, and his repetitiveness isn’t necessarily a flaw. Reading these kind of scenes is enjoyable not because it is surprising, or dramatic, but because it is something familiar done well. Like Tsukuru says about cooking, there is a lot to be said for simple meals cooked “skilfully and intelligently”.
Murakami Bingo aside, though, there still needs to be elements that are unique to each novel.
His stories are ultimately about personal growth – but the process of growing can vary wildly. In Dance Dance Dance, a series of bizarre encounters with a Sheep Man, and a murder mystery, prompts the protagonist into agency. In the more realist Norwegian Wood, the protagonist grapples with his would-be girlfriend’s mental illness.
Colourless is like Norwegian Wood with a little less substance. It does not have the surreal plot devices, the fantastical structures and characters of some of his more ambitious novels, like his recent and sprawling 1Q84. Instead, it relies for its interest exclusively on its central mystery – the question of why his friends jilted him – and the expectation that Murakami fans are happy to play Bingo with scenes they have read, in one form or another, many times before.
Neither of these is quite enough. Tsukuru Tazaki travels to see friend after friend, trying to get to the bottom of his rejection. But there is no tension in these scenes, and there is little feeling that they were strong friends at any point, except in Tsukuru’s repeated contention that they were an “orderly, harmonious community”.
This friendship, around which the whole novel revolves, is only reported. We are told that Tsukuru had an intimate group of friends, but we have so little exposure to that group dynamic that it’s hard to empathise with his omnipresent sense of loss.
Tsukuru’s journey also doesn’t seem sufficiently meaty to justify his personal growth. By the heavy-handed last chapter, Murakami can be seen nudging him towards an emotional denouement we’re not convinced Tsukuru would have reached on his own, especially given the violent revelations he has uncovered. His “pilgrimage” does not offer closure, but he acts as though it has.
My disappointment in the novel went deeper than this, though. While many disagree with me, I think Murakami’s strength is magical realism.
Many great writers spin gold from mundane materials, but Murakami is not one of them. His legacy will be his ability to bring the surreal to bear on the everyday, and to draw them into the most compelling kind of cooperation.
It is the few strange elements in the novel which stand out, the relationship with Haida finding a perfect balance between his two modes, and making me nostalgic for his other, superior novels.
Colourless is just okay: its unremarkable narrator and unremarkable plot adds up to an unremarkable novel, as well as the nagging sense that a secret ingredient has been left out.