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Onyx reviews: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 08/07/2014

When Tsukuru Tazaki was a teenager, he had four friends, two boys and two girls. The uneven gender composition of their tight-knit group might have caused complications, but it didn't. The friends met serendipitously when they all joined the same volunteer organization and they became like five fingers on the same hand—inseparable and devoted. (At one point in the book, there is a discussion of how a pianist with six fingers is disadvantaged: five is the perfect number.) They were rarely seen in groups of two, three or four. Always five, in perfect harmony. There may have been sexual attractions among the group's members, but they tacitly decided to never act upon them.

They even managed to remain close when Tsukuru left to attend university in Tokyo. However, on one of his frequent trips back to Nagoya, he was informed (when he finally got someone to talk to him) that they no longer wanted to see him. No explanation was given. The implication was that he had committed some unforgivable offence, and if he contemplated upon his actions deeply he would understand. He has been tried and convicted in absentia, a Kafka-esque predicament.

Tsukuru is thought of as "colorless" because the other four all had names that contained a color. He was, by default, lacking in color. This position among his group of friends has a powerful impact on him: he thinks of himself as boring, complacent and pale in appearance. When his father chose the Chinese character that would represent his first name, he had a choice between one that meant "to make" and one that meant "to create." Not wishing to inflict the pressure implied by creation upon his son, he opted for the former. In his professional life, the name proved to be apropos. Tsukuru, who was always fascinated by trains and, in particular, railway stations, studied engineering and went on to work for a company responsible for designing and maintaining Tokyo's many stations. 

However, it almost wasn't thus. After returning to Tokyo after being blindsided by his friends, Tsukuru entered a months-long period when he wanted to die. He wasn't suicidal, because no form of self-inflicted death approached the ideal purity he saw in simply dying. Eventually, he pulled himself out of his depression, but could not figure out why he had been shunned and never asked. He underwent a physical transformation during and following his low period, so much so that people almost don't recognized him any more.

In the aftermath, he maintained a somewhat colorless life. He made another close friend, a young man named Haida (another name that contains a color, albeit a rather bland gray), who tells him a story about a man who could see the color of each individual's aura. He graduated from university, got a respectable job, dated occasionally, and more or less let life carry him along. When he needed to get away from it all, he went to a station and watched the trains come and go, and the flow of humanity around him.

He's in his mid-thirties when he meets a woman named Sue with whom he forms a close bond. She senses that he has emotional and self-esteem issues that are keeping him from being fully present in their relationship. She suggests that he seek out his former friends and get to the bottom of the mystery that has bedeviled him for so many years. He agrees, and thus begins an exploration of a painful part of his past, a journey that takes him back to Nagoya and to Finland.

The book takes its title from a Franz Liszt suite called Years of Pilgrimage. In particular, Tsukuru is touched by a piece called "Le mal du pays," a term that can be translated as homesickness or melancholy, a sense that pervades the novel. When Haida plays a recording of the song for him, Tsukuru recognizes it because one of his former friends used to play it.

While Tsukuru does get an explanation for his friends' actions, he encounters other mysteries. However, this isn't a book about answers so much as it is about the search for them. As with most of Murakami's books, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage has a sense of the surreal, even though nothing overtly inexplicable happens. There are dreams that may be prescient. Tsukuru has a sense that his life split into two, that perhaps he really did die after his friends rejected him, or that he crossed over into an alternate reality, which will be familiar to readers of 1Q84. Even Sara accuses him of being somewhere separate from them when they're having sex. He also begins to convince himself that he may have been guilty of the offence of which he was accused and imagines the scenario playing out in his mind, in a different place or temporality.

Sue understands Tsukuru better than he understands himself, telling him that he's not a simple person: he just tries to think that he is. As he begins to come to terms with a pivotal incident from his youth and reestablishes connections with people who were once important to him, his real pilgrimage begins. Murakami leaves a number of important plot points open as Tsukuru embarks on his future. Tsukuru may have a destination in mind, but he can't completely control his destiny, as that depends upon the independent actions of others.

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