If you have been following my blog for the past few years, you would know that I am a big fan of Haruki Murakami. Who isn’t? Under my A to Z Review Index you can see a string of Murakami’s books reviewed under M. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” sold more than one million copies in its first month of publication in Japan in April 2013, and we waited 16 months before fans queued up the night before for the premier and launch of the book in London in early August. I owe my thanks to Dolce Bellezza hosting a read along that this book came into my attention. With my hectic work schedule and in the midst of moving house (by the way I have moved), it was a miracle I am able to finish the book.
Essentially, Murakami writes two kinds of novels: the deftly delineated personal odyssey of self-discovery narrative – Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun (both 2000) – and the more ambitiously plotted, often supernaturally shaded, epic shaggy dog story –A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997). I am glad that this round Murakami has chosen the first approach as it has always been exactly the same self-discovery narrative that I love most about Murakami and I savour every passage of this novel eagerly.
Before reading my review would you like to have Franz Liszt’s Le mal du pays from his Years of Pilgrimage suite playing in the background? Nothing quite happen to the youtube video so you can click this and listen to it: Once again, Murakami weaves a well-chosen piece of music into the story to underscore the abiding sense of loss and melancholy felt by his protagonist.
Tsukuru Tazaki had a group of friends who spent a lot of time doing volunteering teaching and hanging out together. Each of Tsukuru’s former friends has a last name that contains a colour: the boys are called Akamatsu (red pine) and Ao (blue sea); the girls Shiro (white root) and Kurino (black field) except for Tsukuru. Even when Tsukuru was part of this tightly bonded group, he often felt like an outsider, his self-believed of his hollowness and lack of personality leading him to question constantly why he was included in their group at all. In his second year of university, he was told by the family members of his closest friends that they no longer want to see him. They refused to tell him why.
Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing insides me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow. – page 98
At this point, we must understand the Japanese cultural context that why people don’t come clean on what they think and what they want to say; and why Tsukuru did not hunt any of his friends down so that for the next growing up years of his life he would know the answer to the rejection and probably wouldn’t have to entertain suicidal thoughts? But feeling suicidal he did, and he spent many years tormented by his friends’ decision until one day he met a woman called Sara that he thinks he would like to marry and Sara (oh bless her) persuaded Tsukuru to take up his mission to locate all four of his friends and find out about the truth so that he could eradicate the psychological blockage he had before he could embark into any meaningful relationship with Sara. Tsukuru began his journey of meeting his former friends, meanwhile we catch a glimpse of Tsukuru’s past and events that illustrates his low-key life with a series of strange dreams and a friendship with a classmate called Haida whom Tsukuru could involve in some intellectual sparring.
To be able to write in such understated way, in clean and simple prose, yet convey something so deep and heartfelt is my main draw to Murakami’s novels. I wade through the undercurrent of the novel with familiarity of the feeling and sense of other Murakami’s novel or the vague memories I had about my adolescence and how every rejection from a friend could bring such a deeply cut wound. I grew up in the South East Asia and I remember in secondary school we have groups of friends consisting of boys and girls who regard each other as platonic friends without any overt sexual intention. Some of these groups break up when between them friendships have turned to amorous relationships. Yet those were the most impressionable years that I remember when I was always in the fringe of these groups, hanging outside the circles in the Venn diagram and never quite stay as a permanent subset to any circle, never one of them. I am the Tzukuru who has been rejected, right from the beginning.
I can look at all that past again and laugh and thank my lucky star that I grew up to be rather self sufficient without a need to feel like I should kill myself (LOL) but one of the things that struck me was when the former friends who finally met Tzukuru thought that he was the most good looking and interesting guy in the group and every girl is dying to go out with him. What a sad contrast of how his friend perceive Tzukuru and how he had perceived himself!
At every page, I half expected Murakami to introduce some bizarre twists of perhaps blurring the line between dreams and reality but it didn’t happened and I am thankful for that. I now wonder if Murakami too has been scarred by some unspoken event in his past, as there has been more than one mention of a character who always break out from a group, from a couple, or generally the guy who doesn’t fit anywhere at all? If that’s the case, I think that is why it made Murakami special and I think it what makes me special too.
What is different in Murakami’s novel this time though is that Murakami expound his sense of delineation to the wider Japanese population with the metaphor of coming across a famous photography shot of pictures of Japanese commuters looking downcast as they walked down on the stairs with the photographer’s caption of: “Japan may be affluent, but most Japanese look like this, heads downcast and unhappy-looking.” without further context.
Tsukuru had no idea if most Japanese were, as the article claimed, unhappy. But the real reason that most passengers descending the stairs at Shinjuku Station during their packed morning commute were looking down was less that they were unhappy that that they were concerned about their footing….. certainly it was hard to view this mass of people, clad in dark overcoats, their heads down, as happy. And of course it’s logical to see a country where people can’t commute in the morning without fear of losing their shoes as an unhappy society……
Tsukuru wondered how much time people spend simply commuting to work every day. Say the average commute was between an hour and an hour and a half. That sounded about right. if your typical office worker, working in Tokyo, married with a child or two, wanted to own his own house, the only choice was to live in the suburbs and spend that much time getting to work and back. So two to three hours out of every 24 would be spent simply in the act of commuting. If you were lucky, you might be able to read the newspaper or a paperback in the train. Maybe you could listen to your iPod, to a Haydn symphony or a conversational Spanish lesson. Some people might even close their eyes, lost in deep metaphysical speculation. Still, it would be hard to call these two or three hours rewarding, quality time. How much of one’s life was snatched away to simply vanish as a result of this (most likely) pointless movement from point A to point B? and how much of this effort exhaust people, and wear them down?
And that second paragraph is EXACTLY how I feel these days about commuting from Reading to London to work. Feeling more and more pointless of spending a good 3 hours of my daily life commuting to work, wondering if it is all worthwhile if it’s not only to work to pay the bills? 😦
At this point, I don’t want to keep talking and divulge any further about the book. I thought it contain some beautiful moment when Tzukuru finally met one of the classmates in Scandinavia. I can read into the many sentences in the book and conjure up many more thoughts about the regrets and expectations about life but I’ll stop here. I am, however, not very pleased about the ambiguous ending in this book and the inconclusive answer to Tzukuru’s relationship with Sara. I guess in the bigger scheme of what had happened, that is not important.
This novel appears more grown up than his other earlier novels. The Haruki Murakami brand and cult following is still going strong. Give me anything to read Mr. Murakami and I will gladly devour it. It is never a waste of my time, in fact your novels pulls me back in my hectic life and send me to another place in the deep recesses of my memory. I will try to get my hands on a copy and re-read it again one day.
“You’ll be going back to college in Tokyo before much longer.. and you’ll return to real life. You need to live it to the fullest. No matter how shallow and dull things might get, this life is worth living. I guarantee it. – Midorikawa.”
Finished reading at 4 September 2014, Thursday. Library copy. Harvill Secker 298 pages.