Book Review: Rediscovering Murakami: On Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

colorless-tsukuru-tazakiColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the long-awaited new novel—a book that sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan—from the award-winning, internationally best-selling author Haruki Murakami. Here he gives us the remarkable story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages. (Goodreads)


We can only live through so much damage. Damage we’ve done to ourselves, damage inflicted by those around us, damage that comes with living in the world. All sorts of damage. After that the heart, or at least what remains of it, ceases to carry any more burden and shuts itself out, grows harder than quartzite, if not freezes altogether. So much like a machine, the human heart has its point of breakage, a marked pain level that, when reached, announces through a loud blaring sound the signal to stop. Once the thin red line of warning has been crossed, an alarm siren goes off, an emergency line rings on, to send the screaming message inside of us: Enough is enough.

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013) offers a deep insight into the infernal interiors of damage. It shares the story of a young man whose encounter with life has brought him to the edge of death. A young man struck by the mammoth amount of suffering that it seemed no amount of healing would bring back what was marred within him, whose loss has proven to be so tremendous that he has created instead a spot near nothing where he nurtures his now barren life with all the safety he could afford.

Tsukuru Tazaki’s sudden excommunication from his well-cherished high school group has scarred him in such a staggering way that he has lost his desire for almost everything in life, even his will to live. To be banished from the group was one thing, but to be banished from the group without having been given even the slightest bit of a reason was another thing which all the more made the burden even heavier for Tsukuru Tazaki to bear. In the opening chapter of the novel, Murakami draws the image of a man whose life is at the verge of an awaiting death, whose life has already fled from him.

It was as if he were sleepwalking through life, as if he had already died but not yet noticed it. When the sun rose, so would Tsukuru—he would brush his teeth, throw on whatever clothes were at hand, ride the train to college, and take down notes in class. Like a person in a storm desperately grasping at a lamppost, he clung to this daily routine. He only spoke to people when necessary, and after school, he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life. Before him lay a huge, dark abyss that ran straight to the earth’s core. All he could see was a thick cloud of nothingness swirling around him…”

How many half-dead humans are there in the world? Humans who, like Tsukuru, wade through the sea of everyday life with no rhyme or reason to guide their movements, almost like dead fishes strewn in the vastness of the ocean, carried away only by the flow of water and time? Like Tsukuru, the rest of us are “…colorless, with no light to speak of. No sun, no moon or stars. No sense of direction…” People tread through life carrying the burden that was so imposed upon them without their consent, without being asked if they were capable of carrying such a baggage. People are thrown into the world, “almost without a question”, and are made to lift its weight since time and time immemorial.

Tsukuru Tazaki’s salvation (if it is even apt to call it that) came in the form of his encounter with Sara Kimoto, to whom he felt strongly attracted to. It was Sara who pushed and urged Tsukuru, on the grounds that once Tsukuru finally confronted the demons from his haunting past, he and Sara would be able to be together in a relationship without any obstructions from their former lives, to return to the past, back to that gloomy part of his young adult life, and to seek for answers he was deprived of from the people he once called friends.

And so, Tsukuru Tazaki embarked on a road trip down memory lane, a pilgrimage to the past, guided only by the hope that even if years and years have already passed them by, he would still find that lost place in time where he and his four high school best friends—all five of them—were together as one “…orderly, harmonious community of friends.”  What Tsukuru Tazaki found out in his quest was more than just an answer as to why, one day in time, his friends decided to sever their friendship with him. What he found were stories, secrets, dreams and nightmares buried six feet beneath the rest of the world for sixteen long years. What he found out was the bizarreness of the lives that the five of them had led since they parted ways, of a past that seemed too distant yet still too near that it almost intertwine with the present and the future. What he found out was the realization, that like the rest of his friends, he too could still live on, move on, as if he was never broken, damaged, as if the past was all just a dream.

But a dream, even if it was just a dream, was still there at one point, lost both in the consciousness and the memory of us all. And for Tsukuru Tazaki, this meant more than anything else in the world. The pain he had when he was abandoned by his friends would always remain there, perhaps as a sort of a banner of the consequence of action, perhaps nothing more than a reminder that the past was once aliveBut beyond all pain was a kind of forgiveness  Tsukuru Tazaki has finally understood. Forgiveness not only towards his friends but most importantly towards his self for not being able to see and to recognize the pain of others.

And in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. This is what lies at the root of true harmony.”

By the next few pages, I see a strong Tsukuru, completely unlike the one in the opening paragraphs of the novel. A Tsukuru whose words resound so much fearlessness, so much forgiveness. A Tsukuru who has finally let go, finally been set free.

You don’t need to worry about me anymore. I survived the crisis. Swam through the night sea on my own. Each of us did what we had to do in order to survive. I get the feeling that, even if we had made different decisions then, even if we had chosen to do things differently, we might have still ended up pretty much where we are now.”

There is no room for blame. Each of us did what we had to do in order to survive. This passage from the novel is reminiscent of the 2011 film A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, wherein Carl Jung’s character quoted, “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable just to be able to go on living.” And what is forgiveness after all than the subtle realization that each of us share a part of the pain, that each of us are victims of circumstances, much more of life itself. A realization that there is a greater force outside of us that is beyond our control, completely oblivious to our pain; a realization that in this generation’s parlance, “Shit happens,” and that there is nothing we can do about the play of events other than for us to alter its meaning and to recreate our own dimensions.

For me, the slightest traces of Nietzsche in the novel was what made the novel all the more familiar, at the same time, powerful. (Even Tsukuru’s name which when translated from the Japanese means to make, to build, to create, sounds true to the matter.) In the end, Tsukuru Tazaki was left with only his life to live, a life in the absence of an “orderly, harmonious community of friends” he once called his family, a life completely removed of the possibility of the group’s re-union, a life guided only by their memories. In the voice of one of Tsukuru’s friends, Kuro/Eri, “…that amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.” 

True as things could ever be, lost time could never be found again. Like a silver ring dropped from the mouth of a bottomless pit, we spent ourselves searching, running, for all that has been, for all that has ceased to be, without knowing that all our attempts will go to waste, just as our flesh will turn to ashes someday when we are dead. I would like to believe that this much is true, that a pilgrimage to the past is simply just a pilgrimage and nothing more, that the past is eternally inaccessible, irretrievable. But Tsukuru Tazaki’s tale tells another story.

“But a dream, even if it was just a dream, was still there at one point, lost both in the consciousness and the memory of us all.”

There are things in life that are already lost, never to be restored again. Like sandcastles blown away by the salty whiff of ocean air. But a part of it lingers, remains.

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.

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