Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaka and His Years of Pilgrimage is the type of novel that literary critics love. Make that the type of novel they love to talk about, if only because it allows them to freely use the word Bildungsroman without attracting stares. Paradoxically one of the least and yet still most overused words in both English and its original German, a simple translation for Bildungsroman would be “a coming-of-age story”; a solid framework for many of the most popular and endearing tales in literature, regardless of language; being able to call such things a Bildungsroman appears to be the only appropriate use of the word.
In relation to Colorless Tsukuru the use of Bildungsroman is more appropriate in what the usage of the word itself represents, rather than a strict application to what Murakami’s odd new book is actually about. As a German word being applied to an English translation of a Japanese book, the very concept of translation demands attention. We often look to the safety of fiction for ‘colorful’ characters, mistaking their eccentricities and misadventures as things and ideals to strive for that we can overlook the mundane and ordinary for what they are.
It’s a shame when such limited thinking is self-imposed, self-rendering ourselves in blankets of colorless mediocrity.
One such person would be 36-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki, an engineer from Nagoya who specializes in repairing train stations. Only the Tsukuru here has already come-of-age, having lived a life without much trouble, save for one incident in his youth that would have have terrifying consequences on his developing psyche and feeling of self worth.
During high school Tsukuru and four classmates formed a friendship group that helped each mange through the difficult time of pre-college academia. The others were two boys and two girls, each having surnames that translated (from the Japanese) into distinct ‘colors’. Aka (Red), the overachiever with big ideals, Ao (Blue), the rugby captain with natural leadership skills, and Kuro (Black), a witty girl with more to offer than first appearances might suggest.
Last was Shiro (White), beautiful with a gift at the piano, most notably for her stirring rendition of Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” from his “Années de pèlerinage”, a piece that not only gives the novel its subtitle but also has the distinction of carrying its own foreshadowing translation: homesickness.
Only Tsukuru lacked his own ‘color’, which pegged him a natural outlier, as well as for his lack of characteristic distinction. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the fifth member of a well-oiled quartet. And yet he remained a cozy member of this tightly-knit collective without issue – until the incident, of course.
One day, without reason or warning, he was banished from the group. Completely. This throws him into a panic, leaving him both confused and on the verge of suicide. Yet, over time, Tsukuru recovered and slowly rebuilt his life into a state of comfortable achievement in his chosen field: train stations.
Years pass by without further incident. Tsukuru’s new girlfriend, Sara, a Tokyo-based travel agent, can sense something awry in his attention, as if his unresolved past threatens to jeopardize what he hopes to be the start of a new journey together. With the aid of the internet and light detective work, Sara soon tracks down each of the four ‘colorful’ friends who ostracized him all those years ago, insistent that he learn what caused the fissure in the first place.
Thus begins Tsukura’s pilgrimage of rediscovery, one that trails backwards as he tracks down each member of the group, each reveal bringing him another step closer to the mystery of his banishment. It’s a relatively straightforward journey that will take Tsukuru from the sterile train stations of Tokyo to the lush forests of Finland.
Thanks to a readable translation by frequent Murakami compatriot Philip Gabriel, Colorless Tsukuru is a slimmer, tighter read than most of his recent output, one that does readers a remarkable job of capturing the inscrutably “Japanese” flavor that a lesser translator might have lost. While this makes for the occasional awkward turn of phrase, longtime Murakami fans know this already. They probably look forward to it.
Unlike his last release, the gigantic three-part supernatural, parallel world shifting epic 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru is a stark return to a more minimalist Murakami, one perhaps most famous to Western audiences for his early (and recently filmed) novel of young romance Norwegian Wood.
He eschews the supernatural and mind-bending parallel fantasy worlds – his work often requires charts and graphs to keep up – for something that could only be called ‘simple’ in relation to the conscious-crashing worlds he often creates only to disassemble. It should go without saying that some part or another of Colorless Tsukuru will, inexorably, be compared to other Murakami novels, its themes judged against themes. He’s crafted a style so distinctly his own that what else is there to compare to?
Tsukuru describes himself as an “empty vessel”, an otherwise boring person. He pines for a ‘home’ that never was, a speculative gesture of what might have been had fate taken him down a different path. His love of train stations is itself a reflection of his own life; the towns and cities he visits flow with change and movement, circulated through stationary hubs and interconnected terminals that remain constant and indistinct, their purpose to serve others. Like Tsukuru, he feels, never allowing himself the benefit of his own importance in facilitating their transfer. As with the trains themselves he figures himself an ‘empty vessel’, one relying on others for color and distinction.
I doubt anyone would ever describe Murakami’s surprisingly frank discussions about sex and sexuality as ‘erotic’, but those familiar with the author’s penchant for love for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll know they typically translate as love, coffee, and mellow jazz. As with Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage”, and music in general, Murakami remains that rare author whose work absolutely must be read personally to be truly experienced, lest his true intent and color get lost in translation.
How can a writer be so comfortably predictable yet so inexplicably not? Colorless Tsukuru Tazaka and His Years of Pilgrimage may be smaller, more compact Murakami but it’s still Murakami, much as a tale that’s less epic and mysterious is still epic and mysterious. Longtime fans fear not; Tsukuru’s journey of self rediscovery is as plaintive and yearning as anything the author’s ever written, and perhaps as impenetrable to the uninitiated as ever.