Haruki Murakami’s Characters Grapple With Friendship and Aging, But His Stories Never Grow Old

by Hans Rollman

30 September 2014

 
cover art

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami

(Knopf)
US: Aug 2014

In early August, the flashy promotional billboards of downtown Toronto proclaimed its coming: the latest novel by Haruki Murakami. Surrounded by the likes of Death From Above 1979, Cold Specks, and assorted late summer music festivals, Murakami has entered the ranks of those all-too-few writers who live to see their names emblazoned in hypercolour font on billboards 15 feet high (in this he joins the dubious company of the authors of Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey).

But if the billboards paint his name in letters twice the size of the average person, it’s an appropriate reflection of his stature in world literature. (Not to mention bestseller lists, which are of course entirely different things. Fortunately, in Murakami’s case, they coincide.)

The latest release by this international sensation is the hefty, nearly 400-page novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A short squat book with a striking cover design (the cover received almost as much hype as the novel itself; the reader will quickly come to understand the symbolic importance of the colour scheme and subway maps which adorn it), it’s actually a light, easy and engaging read.

On the surface it is the story of an aging, middle-aged man who undertakes a mission to unravel an unresolved mystery from his youth. But like all Murakami novels, it uses a simple and intriguing storyline, stitched into the familiar contours of an identifiably modern setting (ubiquitous references to brand names, bands, and even Facebook anchor it in a universally accessible globalized world), to grapple with deeper themes: the mystery of human relationships; friendship; the different faces we present to our friends, and even to ourselves.

Murakami novels are invariably a blend of the surreal and the everyday, woven together in that unique manner at which he so excels. On the one hand, his characters resonate with the reader by means of their deeply personal normalcy. They question their own place in the world; they doubt; they share our common identity as profoundly unremarkable people striving for a sense of purpose and meaning.

Tsukuru Tazaki has a painful, hidden secret: when he was a young college student, his close circle of friends announced to him one day they were expelling him from their lives and would never speak with him again. He was not told why, and remains deeply scarred by the experience. Although respected and successful in his career as a railroad engineer, he still bears the pain of this childhood experience and the sense of personal inadequacy it induced in him. He doesn’t really understand why anyone befriends him at all, and considers himself colorless and uninteresting.

Now in his late 30s he – like so many Murakami characters – reflects with a sense of surprise on where he is in life and how he wound up there. Apart from this mystery of his childhood, which slowly unravels over the course of the novel, there is nothing surprising or remarkable about his existence. He’s done all right for himself, and suddenly there he is: in his late 30s, with an uneventful yet not uncomfortable life.

What does that say about him? How should he feel about himself and his adequate albeit unexceptional accomplishments? Has the unremarkable pain of a lifetime – struggles now forgotten, losses long buried – left hidden scars that define him and shape in subtle ways his present-day relationships? Such complex yet subtle characterization taps, no doubt, into the self-reflexive fears of his audience; Murakami shows himself now, as ever, a master at putting into words the sense of purposelessness, anomie and self-doubt that so many feel in today’s world.

And yet, his novels are marked by a deep tinge of surrealism. His characters engage in such strange ways that it would be eerily odd to actually meet them in real life. Tsukuru Tazaki is getting to know a new girlfriend, but after describing to her how his friends abandoned him so many years ago, she orders him to go find them and resolve the mystery: their future relationship may depend on it. “I’m more possessive, more straightforward than I might seem,” she explains to him nonchalantly over dinner.

“I don’t want whatever it is to come between us…You need to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naïve, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional. Not to see what you want to see, but what you must see.” She then deftly Facebook-stalks these friends of his, finds their home addresses, contact information and brief bios, presents him with the information and sends him out to find them. It certainly carries the plot along, but where do people like this exist in real life?

Necessary though it may be to carry the story along, one gets the impression that Murakami would almost rather not have to bother with the messiness of dialogue, cleanly and crisply though he writes it. Yet despite the surrealism of these exchanges, they do not disrupt the reader’s enjoyment. Rather, the resonance of the broader themes keeps the reader hooked; odd and unrealistic conversations don’t matter so much as the reflections they provoke in the reader, and the reader’s ultimate desire to know how they’ll turn out.

For Murakami is a master of suspense, and in this he deploys his characters’ dialogue most deftly. It was purportedly Alfred Hitchcock who, when asked how long a screen kiss could realistically last without losing audience interest, replied that there was no time limit – so long as the audience knew there was a ticking bomb under the bed. Murakami has mastered this very device in his fiction.

Characters on the cusp of a major plot revelation – and the reader knows it’s coming – will engage in the most mundane small-talk for pages upon pages. They’ll discuss coffee, pottery-making, cars, any assortment of matters – everyday topics the reader can easily relate to, and so they pleasantly hold the reader’s interest. What is the benefit of a Lexus? How does a character colour-coordinate her dress with her nail polish? And all the while there is an inevitable bomb waiting to explode once they get these pleasantries out of the way.

The unique talent of Murakami is reflected in the fact these devices are not irritating. They are, in fact, an essential component of his style: these gentle preludes building up to a sudden crescendo. There’s a musicality to his style – something which has been documented by others, and in far greater length, but it’s worth reflecting on, here.

Jay Rubin, literary professor and sometime translator of Murakami, remarks in his excellent literary survey of Murakami’s work – Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words – that “Rhythm is perhaps the most important element of his prose. He enjoys the music of words, and he senses an affinity between his stylistic rhythms and the beat of jazz.” For Murakami, “music is the best means of entry into the deep recesses of the unconscious, that timeless other world within our psyche.”

Indeed, music is ubiquitous in Murakami’s work. Before he took up writing he ran a jazz club, and even now his books are littered with musical references – from band names to more complex musical metaphors (the influence works both ways: his work has inspired songs, videos, albums, even dance performances).

His latest novel is no different. Musical references range from Elvis to Pet Shop Boys to Franz Liszt. In fact, it was Liszt’s set of piano suites known as Years of Pilgrimage from which the title is drawn, and which plays a key role in the book (Universal Music was caught off guard by the sudden freak demand for Franz Liszt: his Years of Pilgrimage sold out almost instantaneously following the release of Murakami’s novel, and they had to orchestrate a rapid reissue of the particular album he references in the book). 

Yet in addition to these references and to the rhythm of his prose, musicality is expressed in the manner in which he weaves together his unique blend of surreality, dialogue and broadly engaging plot themes. The everyday excursions from the main plot touch on a range of themes, yet ones that easily resonate with the audience. While traveling abroad he reflects on the lonely solitude of the traveler; while meeting a friend who offers transformational training workshops for business people he reflects on the cult-like illusions and fakery of the corporate world.

But these comprise only the lightest forays into deeper themes; Murakami pokes at the surface, but then leaves them be. If the novel were a piano suite, these would be the light dances comprising the whole; the free jazz improvisations which return unerringly to the repetitious chorus of the main theme: the symbolism of colours and the meaning of self-worth and friendship.

This is a novel for an audience that’s aging along with its beloved author. One of the primary themes is the changing nature of friendships. It is indeed remarkable to look back at one’s life and consider all the various circles of friends one has shared during different periods of one’s life. How does one reconcile these? What do they say about oneself, and one’s friends? Is it we who change, or they? Do some friendships remain unchanged? What hidden truths about our friendships, obscured to us in the moment, reveal themselves to us only with the passing of time and the insight afforded by distance?

The key character, Tsukuru Tazaki, doesn’t perceive himself to be having a mid-life crisis—instead, he’s sent by his girlfriend on a journey to unravel the mystery of his past – but in essence this is what he’s going through. In his late 30s he finds himself uncertain about his place in the world and in human relationships, and realizes this uncertainty has left him slightly unhinged and unable to be fully present in his current relationships. Unlike most of us, he has an easy solution: resolve the mystery from his college days. But that opens the novel to an exploration of how people change over time.

The intensity of high school or college friendships is something rarely repeated – in all their vibrantly bright and dark colours – and subsequent human relationships often seem somehow duller. In revisiting each of his old friends, and slowly unraveling the bizarre mystery of what actually transpired between them, Tazaki also comes face to face with how much they have changed, and thus, too, how much he has changed. Above all, it reveals how much human relationships change over time; both in terms of the changing ways in which we pursue or form new relationships, as well as how we maintain those friendships that date back to our earlier years.

Perhaps Murakami is at the age where he is reflecting on the relationships and friendships in his own life. Or perhaps he is just telling a good story. In any event, he tells a tale that will resonate with many readers: this is his particular magic, and what he has come to be known for. And in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, he offers as fine a tale as ever.

Murakami’s work often encounters controversy – much of it deserved. His books have the simplistic honesty of someone who tells a tale without considering what impact that telling might have. Or does he? It’s hard to say. This book, like many of his books, contains its share of graphic sexuality, and contains complex plot twists involving sexual violence. This element is not nearly as pronounced in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki as in his other novels, but it lurks inevitably around the complicated plot.

Discerning readers are rightly suspicious of motive and effect in such cases, particularly in an era when we are attuned to the impact that sexual stereotypes and violence have in popular culture, and the suspicion that they might be used gratuitously (that is not, I think, the case in this book). But as usual, it’s difficult to say. It’s hard to assess Murakami’s brief forays into sexuality, particularly since, as always, he leaves some of his many plot twists unresolved.

In this, one is reminded of the technique Ernest Hemingway swore by: his “theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” Perhaps all one can say is that Murakami has mastered this technique, maybe even more than Hemingway did, and the reader is left feeling a great deal more than they understand. 

Without giving anything away, it’s worth reflecting on the power of Murakami’s endings. They are never what one expects, in part because one never knows what to expect. In the case of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Murakami’s musical performance ends on an emotional crescendo. But there is something fitting in a surplus of feeling, of emotional colour, at the end of the tale of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. It’s as though the story ends with Murakami tossing a can of paint over it all; the resulting colours mixing in hues that readers are left to sort out and interpret for themselves.

In many stories, the protagonist’s character development is intended to leave them stronger; more stoic and resolute for the striving and struggle through which they must go. The opposite holds true here: for a colorless, emotionally dead character, it is the re-attainment of youthful fragility which is the goal. “We truly believed in something back then,” he reflects on his youth, “and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something – with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.”

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a tale for those who feel the color and hope has gone from their lives, and who, like Tazaki, wonder where it went and whether it ever existed at all. Tazaki, a railroad engineer, finds solace and peace when he is sitting in the heart of the stations he builds, watching passengers embark and disembark on their various routes, intent upon their own pilgrimages both profound and mundane. Murakami offers us, in Tazaki’s tale, the story of one such journey in quest of color.

But ultimately, he seems to be saying, it is up to us to choose our own route.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

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