Oct 022014

murakami via http://www.sequenza21.com/dillon/

The modulation is from the internal to the external, and the puzzles Tsukuru attempts to solve actually have answers. They draw Murakami away from his usual narrative tactic of ambiguity. Still, even here, after what most readers would have to call a satisfactory conclusion to a well-made tale, some essential mystery remains. — Steven Axelrod


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami
Knopf (August, 2014)
Hardcover, 386 Pages, $25.95


Haruki Murakami’s career been an extraordinary one by any standard. His status in Japan falls somewhere between J.K.Rowling and the Beatles at their peak of popularity. Japanese fans line up for hours to purchase each new book, despite the establishment cavil that he is a little too interested McDonalds and Walt Disney, Raymond Chandler and rock and roll. His various works of fiction and memoir have earned him constant critical acclaim and many literary prizes, including the World Fantasy Award (2006), the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006), the Franz Kafka Prize (2006), and the Jerusalem Prize (2009).

Murakami’s novels deploy a quiet, austere prose-style to describe bizarre alternate realities. In books like 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his protagonists descend – down an emergency stairway on a Tokyo highway, or into a dry well – to find themselves in new and uneasily altered worlds. The quiet young bachelor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a common type in Murakami’s oeuvre) receives healing powers from a random sexual encounter, learns that some sinister supernatural force is altering the political landscape and recognizes the voice of doom in the call of a mechanical bird. The heroine of 1Q84 finds herself in a world with two moons, where tiny creatures emerge from the mouths of cult members to create an “air chrysalis” a cocoon woven out of thin air, from which some sort of human golem is born. In Kafka on the Shore a ghost appears as Colonel Sanders (he would have preferred manifesting as Mickey Mouse, Disney is so litigious!). Mackerel and sardines fall from the sky like hail.

These examples scarcely begin to catalogue the surreal inventory of Murakami’s imagination. But earlier in his career, he worked in a more naturalistic style, to which he returns for his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage.

The book, elegantly translated by Philip Gabriel,  tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, who after being mysteriously spurned by his close cadre of high school friends and stumbling through a decade of confusion and despair, finally sets out to discover why the four people he cared about the most could have rejected him so ruthlessly. His quest for understanding takes him deep into their shared past, offers troubling revelations about their present lives, and ultimately provides some tentative hope for the future.

Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, features many of the same narrative devices as the new book: the group of friends shattered by an untimely death, a nondescript almost extravagantly ordinary “everyman” led by a beautiful vibrant woman into an examination, and ultimately an understanding, of his life. As usual, Murakami chooses a musical theme to set the tone – Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Janacek’s Sinfonetta in 1Q84, or the Beatles song in Norwegian Wood.

Here he chooses Franz Liszt’s Le Mal du Pays, from the composer’s Years of Pilgrimage Suite, meant to invoke “a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.”

There’s a lot of melancholy in this book, as there was in Norwegian Wood. Premature death smothers the living like a snowfall of ash. But there are crucial differences between this new effort and the earlier novel. Norwegian Wood was set in motion by an inexplicable suicide; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by an unexplained act of violence. The modulation is from the internal to the external, and the mysteries Tsukuru Tazaki attempts to solve actually have answers. They draw Murakami away from his usual narrative tactic of ambiguity. Still, even here, after what most readers would have to call a satisfactory conclusion to a well-made tale, some essential mystery remains.

Two central aspects of Norwegian Wood are reiterated in the story of Tsukuru Tazaki: The childhood tragedy viewed with adult perspective, and the brilliant woman who will function as the emotional catalyst that sparks all the inert elements of a monochrome existence.

As Murakami put it in his 2004 Paris Review interview, “In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.” In this case the woman is named Sara. Sophisticated and worldly, she is drawn to Tsukuru, but quickly detects his emotional disabilities. When she hears the story of how his friends inexplicably shunned him, she understands intuitively how to heal his distance and disconnection.

The issue is baffling even to Tsukuru himself: more than a decade before, his four best friends cut him off absolutely, with no explanation. Clearly they assumed he had done something unforgivable, but he still has no idea what his crime might have been, and no way to defend himself. The mysterious exile tipped Tsukuru over into a suicidal depression, but never carried out the ultimate act. Instead the pain gradually dulled to a constant ache, a permanent cloud cover dimming the landscape of his ever more regimented, asocial, mechanical life. He studied engineering, sat in train stations watching the commuters come and go; ate and slept. The hole in his psyche couldn’t be patched or filled in, so he simply tried to ignore it. He has lived like a hoarder in a cluttered old house, moving in ever more narrow paths through the teetering jumble of an unexamined life. Until he discards the rubbish, packs the valuables and cleans up, he can never move out or move on.

Sara grasps this instantly, and she sets the plot of the novel in motion by setting the terms of love affair with Tsukuru: nothing can begin with her until Tsukuru finds his old friends and discovers why they cut him off.  So Tsukuru starts investigating his own past, as well as the present day lives of his four friends, and this quest becomes the central engine of the novel.

For Tsukuru, it began when he was the “colorless” member of a five-kid clique in high school: three boys and two girls, constant companions.  Their last names all invoke actual colors — the two boys, Akamatsu (“red pine”) and Oumi (“blue sea”); the two girls, Shirane (“white root”) and Kurono (“black field”). For convenience, I’ll just refer to them by their nicknames here: Aka (red), Ao (blue), Shiro (white), and Kuro (black). But Tsukuru is just Tsukuru. The chromatic distinction is not simply one of personality (though Tsukuru feels crushingly ordinary compared to the others).

Murakami has chosen his palette with care. The boys, simple souls, reflect primary colors. The girls are black and white, each embodying the contradiction inherent in pigment and light. In pigment, black signifies the combination of all colors, white the absence of color. In light it’s precisely the opposite. Black is the absence of all colors, and white contains the full spectrum. Shira, with her love of music and the spiritual life, is the white of light, holding every hue inside her, as does the more earthy and practical Kura, whose black pigment also combines every tint.

In high school, Aka was short shy and stubborn, always at the top of his class though he never had to study. Ao was a jock, a big handsome charismatic boy – a good listener and a born leader. Shiro was slim and beautiful: “A Japanese doll”. She was painfully shy but a spectacularly talented musician, happier with children and pets than other people; and happiest at the piano. Kuro was the class clown, a big girl, fast and funny, clever and sarcastic. Alone in this “Breakfast Club” gang, Tsukuru lacked any obvious talents or eccentricities, with only an obsession with train stations to set him apart from the crowd.

Murakami actually gives very little detail about these early years, but the vagueness of Tsukuru’s glory days works a function of the character’s memory, not the author’s laziness. The golden haze that dims Tsukuru’s recollections is crucial to the mystery of how the idyll failed.The first cracks appear when Tsukuru leaves the suburb of Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo. The other four remain at home. Some emotional distance occurs naturally in the separation, as visits become less frequent. Then the blow falls. The severance is absolute, non-negotiable and impossible to understand.

Tsukuru only makes one friend during his decade of exile, a young man named Haida, whose name appropriately refers to the color gray. They swim together at a local pool and discuss philosophy. Haida tells Tsukuru the story of his father (or was it Haida himself? Tsukuru never knows for sure) meeting a pianist named Midorikawa (It means “green river”, another colorful name) in a hot springs resort in the mountains. Haida’s father found himself captivated by the music and by the fact that the musician could see a nimbus of color around everyone he met. The gift could only be passed on to people who had accepted death, which would have made Tsukuru, with his suicidal fixation, an excellent candidate.

Tsukuru never learns to detect auras, but just hearing the story starts him dreaming at night, as his hibernating sexuality reawakens: passionate sexual encounters between himself and the long-lost Shiro and Kura, though their friendship was always strictly platonic; and with Haida, though neither one of them is homosexual in waking life. The friendship with Haida ends abruptly, without explanation, and Tsukuru is once again left alone.

This Purgatorial interlude finally ends when Tsukuru meets Sara at age thirty-six, and begins his quest.

Tsukuru learns that the boys, Ao and Ako, have turned into salesman, one pushing expensive cars and the other hustling a tawdry, pedestrian self-help system. They’ve made their fortunes but turned themselves into colorless capitalist cogs — a fate that Tsukuru, with his quirky love of train stations and his engineering degree, has managed to avoid. In another trope borrowed from Western movies, the boring geek has grown up to outshine the cool group who shunned him. But at least they’re glad to see him, both forthcoming and regretful about the events that poisoned their friendship.

This is what happened: Shira had been raped, and she told the others that Tsukuru was her attacker.

The allegation sounded crazy to Tsukuru’s friends, but Shira was so adamant in her certainty of his guilt that they were forced to close ranks against him. Making things much worse, Shira became pregnant from the attack, decided to carry the baby to term, but lost it. She moved away from Nagoya to a small town on the coast. But tragedy followed her relentlessly. She was murdered, a crime never solved or explained.

As time passed, Tsukuru’s culpability seemed more and more unlikely to his friends, but the confusion and social awkwardness of their first response metastasized with time: the years of silence accumulating like black mold.

When Tsukuru finally tracks them down, though, Ao and Ako are glad to apologize and set things right. They tell him their stories, and the forward rush of the narrative pauses so we can listen. And “listen” is the proper word, as these tales echo both Murakami’s earlier work (The harrowing accounts of war crimes and the slaughter of zoo animals in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the novel-within-a-novel in 1Q84) and the professional story-tellers of Meiji era Japan. These purveyors of Ninjobashi (or sentimental stories) reached their height of popularity in the early twentieth century, when performers of Hamashika , which, much like The Moth today, involved talking without notes on stage, filled the Yose theaters with audiences from every strata of Japanese society.

Concurrently, the invention of Japanese shorthand allowed for the transcription and publication of these stories and hastened the loosening of Japanese formal written language into a more colloquial and approachable style. The Englishman Harry Black came to japan in the 1870s and started presenting Japanese versions of European novels at the Yose theaters. In these adaptations, called Han’anno, you see a clear precedent for Murakami’s fascination with western culture.

But Murakami’s work harks even further back, to the Buddhist Sestuma parables of the 10th century. Like the itinerant priests of the Shoan era, Murakami means his fables to enlighten.

In the life-stories told by Tsukuru’s friends you can trace the development from disconnection and falsity to an enlightened authenticity. Ako sells a bogus self-help course; Ao sells cars. Kuro has moved to Finland, and actually makes something – her beautiful free-form pottery. And of course Tsukuru – whose name means “builder” – helps to design train stations, the most practical and grounded vocation of all. In fact Tsukuru has possessed the very thing he has been seeking all along.

When Tsukuru travels to Finland to see Kuro, he finds her still haunted by the past. She has married a Finnish potter, and changed her name to Eri in a futile effort to extirpate her previous existence. But it’s a hopeless task. “You can put a lid on memory, but you can’t hide history,” Sara tells Tsukuru.

Eri knows it’s true. She regrets siding absolutely with her friend against the absent ‘culprit’ but still doesn’t know how she could have acted differently. Evil spirits, the trauma of the event, followed Shira everywhere, like “dark elves in a forest.” Shira needed protection and absolute fealty from someone. Eri was the only one who could grant it to her.

The answers Tsukuru needs most — who really committed the crime, and why Shira chose to blame him, died with her. He will never get to ask her the most important questions, as he will never get to hear her play  Mal du Pays on the piano again.

Tsukuru returns to Japan from Finland, where his long-standing sense of solitude and exile had finally found some objective correlative: eating strange food in cafés, surrounded by the clatter of a foreign language, the street signs and newspapers inscrutable behind a foreign alphabet. Back in Tokyo, returned from exile, the city starts to feel like home.

In the closing moments of the book, Tsukuru thinks:

If Sara chooses me, I’m going to propose to her right away. And give her everything I’m capable of giving – every single thing. Before I get lost in a dark forest. Before the bad elves grab me.

Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tskuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye at the lakeside in Finland. But that point, he couldn’t put it into words.We truly believed in something back then, 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.

He calmed himself, shut his eyes and fell asleep. The rear light of consciousness, like the last express train of the night, began to fade into the distance, gradually speeding up, growing smaller until it was finally, sucked into the depths of the night, where it disappeared. All that remained was the sound of the wind slipping through a stand of white birch trees.

Murakami has returned to an earlier style of story-telling here, but the intervening years have left their mark. Anchored in reality as Norwegian Wood was twenty-seven years ago, the mundane reality of the new book is imbricated with dreams and magic, from the image patterning of music and color (Sara’s name is as colorless, finally, as Tsukuru’s), to the psychically gifted pianist and the mysterious effect of the music he plays on Tsukru’s sexual, violent, inexplicable dreams. In one of them, Tsukuru is flayed by birds, his skin replaced by some unknown substance between eggs and feathers.

Do the auras the pianist sees really exist? Does embracing death really render them visible? Are the dark forest elves real that pursued Shira real or metaphorical? Did Tsukuru actually attack Shira in some somnambulistic fugue state? Did he have sex with his friend Haida, or merely dream it? The author leaves these mysteries unresolved, like the tragic events of Shira’s life and death. But their presence deepens and invigorates the most straightforward and open-hearted book Haruki Murakami has ever written.

—Steven Axelrod


  3 Responses to “Wind in the Birch Trees: Review of Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — Steven Axelrod”

  1. An impressively detailed review with great depth as to the author’s background and quality of writing. Although it is a seductive invitation to read the book the almost complete revelation of the plot is something of a destruction of the mysteries which must drive the interest of a reader to pursue the answers which the plot reveals. Nevertheless the full spectrum of the imaginative author’s imagination and skills no doubt are sufficient to make the adventure of reading the book well worthwhile.

    • Actually, at NC we take the view that reading for the superficial revelation of the plot is the least interesting aspect of the reading experience. You hit upon a point that sets NC apart from other reviewing sites.

  2. “The quiet young bachelor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a common type in Murakami’s oeuvre) receives healing powers from a random sexual encounter, learns that some sinister supernatural force is altering the political landscape and recognizes the voice of doom in the call of a mechanical bird.”

    Toru Okada is very much married. Kumiko deserts him early on in the book, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find out why and how to get her back.

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