Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Japanese author Haruki Murakami's new novel sold more than 1 million copies the first week it was on sale in Japan.

Book jacket

Photo courtesy of Knopf

Beloved Japanese author and translator Haruki Murakami possesses a deep affinity for cats, music and running. Born in 1949 and educated in Tokyo, Murakami spent seven years as the proprietor of a small jazz bar in Japan before publishing his first novel, The Wind Sing, in 1979. His surreal, dreamlike stories pierce the boundaries between imagination and reality.

Murakami’s latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is more subdued than some of his earlier works. It’s more of an exploration of one man’s psyche than a jaunt down the rabbit hole to skewed worlds.

The novel focuses on the lingering effects of a pivotal event in the life of a train station engineer named Tsukuru Tazaki. The story, driven by the vagaries of conversation and Tsukuru’s memory, shifts between the present and moments in the characters’ pasts.

During high school, Tsukuru experiences a rare and wonderful thing: a nearly flawless friendship with four other schoolmates, two women and two men. The bond endures until the summer after his sophomore year of college, when Tsukuru returns home to find himself inexplicably expelled from the group. This sudden excommunication does grievous harm to Tsukuru, who flees to Tokyo.

Fifteen years later, Tsukuru begins a relationship with a remarkable, enigmatic woman named Sara.

But before he can give himself fully to their nascent romance, and at Sara’s behest, Tsukuru must solve the riddle of his banishment from the group. To do so, Tsukuru tracks down his former friends one by one and revisits that fateful summer.

In one scene about halfway through the book, Tsukuru inspects an old train station that is slated to have its elevators replaced. He compares the original blueprints to the actual structure and finds discrepancies. Before construction can begin, Tsukuru must draft new, more accurate plans.

That scene captures the essence of the book: A man who has been scarred by past events strives to unravel the knot of history.

Murakami’s depiction of Tsukuru is nuanced and compassionate. The other characters, especially the women, seem less robust, often serving as symbols, ciphers or triggers for action and memory.

The first week it was on sale in Japan, the novel sold more than 1 million copies. But Murakami’s fans might be disappointed. It’s as if he is restraining himself; he reeled in the excess and abstained from implausibility. Without the abundance of surrealism in Murakami’s earlier works, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage feels somewhat diminished.

Nonetheless, the novel becomes an insightful, meditative study on the immense power of human bonds to shape a life and the consequences when those bonds are sundered.