"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" is a novel by Haruki Murakami, released in 2013 in Japan and in an English translation in 2014.

The title of this book alone can be a bit intimidating, but it makes sense in context. The protagonist, Tsukuru was one of a group of five friends in high school, and was the only one whose family name did not somehow involve a color. He feels different from them, and thinks of himself as "colorless", with color and its lack being a recurrent (and often commented on) theme in the book. The "Years of Pilgrimage" refer to a musical cycle by Frank Liszt, which is used as a leitmotif for the book.

Reading this book, I was helped along by my recent revelation that the appeal of mystery novels is that they are games of sorts, and the impulse to win the game is what propels the reader along. Although Murakami is not writing standard detective stories, his books all present the reader with a mystery, and solving the mystery is what makes me want to keep reading.

Tsukuru was a member of a group of five tight-knit friends in high school, but was inexplicably cast out by them when he left for college, a rejection that still stings him, even as a 36 year old adult professional. Although he has seemingly moved beyond the rejection, his girlfriend urges him to find out what happened between his friends and him 16 years before. The core of the book's action is Tsukuru finding and meeting his friends, and piecing together what happened. It is debatable whether this quest is what the book is actually "about", because there are thematics that seem to be disjointed from the apparent plot of the book. There is, for example, a section told through two intermediary narrators where a jazz pianist talks about his ability to see auras. Unlike some of Murakami's books, the supernatural or fantastic does not play an obvious role in the book, although there are some dreams and vision that could be taken as supernatural.

I am a fan of Murakami, and have read almost all of his books. As a Murakami fan, I found this book intriguing. People who are less enchanted with Murakami's particular blend of the surreal and the commonplace might not find this book as good as I did.

Murakami -- Romantic & Postmodern


The title of this novel alludes to Franz Liszt's group of three suites for piano, Years of Pilgrimage, particularly the "First Year: Switzerland" suite (1855), which itself had alluded to Goethe's fourth novel Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre (1820s), as well as to Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818). Four of the nine pieces comprising Liszt's Swiss suite have brief epigraphs from Byron's Romantic poem, e.g., this from Canto 3, LXVIII:

The morn is up again, the dewy morn,
With breath all incense, and with cheek all bloom,
Laughing the clouds away with playful scorn,
And living as if Earth contained no tomb!

Murikami's 21st century protagonist has a college friend for awhile, named Haida, who brings over to Tsukuru's apartment a recording to play of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage with Lazar Berman on piano (Berman, 1977). Tsukuru recognizes the eighth piece in the Swiss suite as something one of his high school friends in Nagoya frequently played for others, although Tsukuru had never learned the title or composer. Haida explains some things about "le mal du pays" (homesick melancholy) and the pianist's exquisite skills (Murakami, 2014, pp. 68-70). I sincerely appreciate that Glowing Fish clued me in to these Liszt suites (in review above) because I was previously unaware of them, and they are enchantingly evocative of the emotions stimulated by landscapes, Petrarchan sonnets, Renaissance paintings, churchtower chimes, and so on. I'm listening to the Christian Chamorel recording (Doran, 2009), however, as that was the version my public library had available.

Impressions while Reading

Unlike Haruki Murakami's bounteously illustrated short fiction The Strange Library (orig. pub. in 2005) which is suitable to young reader preferences as well as those of adults, the various chapters in Tsukuru Tazaki that are explicit concerning sexuality could be perceived by numerous parents as inappropriate for very young readers. The narrative here is relatively simple to follow and reminiscent of Hemingway's prose. Nevertheless, I noticed the startling, original metaphors during the opening pages that Muramaki envisioned and included narratively, and I realized it could behoove me to appreciate these fully as I moved through the book.

Alienation and loneliness became a cable that stretched hundreds of miles long, pulled to the breaking point by a gigantic winch. And through that taut line, day and night, he received indecipherable messages. Like a gale blowing between trees, those messages varied in strength as they reached him in fragments, stinging his ears. (pp.6-7)

Like a young tree absorbing nutrition from the soil, Tsukuru got the sustenance he needed as an adolescent from this group, using it as necessary food to grow, storing what was left as an emergency heat source inside him. Still, he had a constant, nagging fear that someday he would fall away from this intimate community, or be forced out and left on his own. Anxiety raised its head, like a jagged, ominous rock exposed by the receding tide, the fear that he would be separated from the group and left entirely alone. (p.18)

This drastic change took place during summer vacation of his sophomore year.... Afterward, Tsukuru Tazaki's life was changed forever, as if a sheer ridge had divided the original vegetation into two distinct biomes. (p.33)

Murakami on Writing Fiction

Here are a handful of selected quotes from an interview conducted in Murakami's Tokyo office over ten years ago (Wray, 2004), which provide a smidgeon of insight into this bestselling author's approach to writing fiction.

  • I would like to leave everything wide open to all the possibilities in the world.
  • Even now, my ideal for writing fiction is to put Dostoevsky and Chandler together in one book. That's my goal!
  • Every time I write a new book, I like to destroy the former structure, to make up a new thing. And I always put a new theme, or a new restriction, or a new vision into the new book. I'm always conscious of the structure.
  • My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. ... The protagonist's mind is split between these totally different worlds and cannot choose which to take. I think that's one of the motifs in my work.
  • I don't want to write about foreigners in foreign countries; I want to write about us. I want to write about Japan, about our life here. That's important to me.

Tsukuru Tazaki rapidly gathers speed, like a Tokyo subway train departing a station, and yet has one reflecting on interpersonal disjunctures, a subject with relevancy in numerous urban environments, whenever the text is laid aside to have a rest.

Key References

Berman, Lazar. (1977). Liszt's years of pilgrimage. Hannover, Germany: Deutsche Grammophon #DGG4372062.
Murakami, Haruki. (2014). Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage (tr. from Japanese by Philip Gabriel). NY: Knopf.
Murakami, Haruki. (2014). The strange library (tr. from Japanese by Ted Goosen). NY: Knopf.
Wray, John. (2004). "Haruki Murakami, the art of fiction (interview) no. 182." The Paris Review no. 170 (Rtr. 2015.12.6) www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182.

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