Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage might be Haruki Murakami’s most elegant novel. It’s a distillation of one of his favorite themes – the construction of self-identity and how outside perception affects that identity – into one narrative, which rises and falls like a symphony over 400 brief pages.
Murakami’s novel centers on a man who suddenly realizes he has been depressed for a very long time. He knows that it started after his four high school best friends expelled him from their friend group, unceremoniously ending the most meaningful relationship in his life, but he hadn’t known how deeply it’d affected him until, almost 20 years later, he met someone who made him want to heal. Now colorless Tsukuru Tazaki has to confront his old friends and, most importantly, himself, in order to face human connection again.
How do we construct our self-perceptions? Well, they’re made from our past experiences (those that we consciously remember are called memory) and our anticipated futures. How does this differ from – or perhaps affect – how others perceive us? Just how little of our selves are dictated consciously, and how many of our most formative experiences do our minds bury?
These questions have been present in all of Murakami’s previous works that I’ve read, which include IQ84, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but of his works, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki most accurately conveys the process of a mind contextualizing itself in its structure and prose. Tsukuru starts out stating the facts about his life up to that point in the barest details – high school was the best time of his life, but then his friends rejected him, and he became so sad that he almost died. He made a close friend in college, but that ended after a year, silently and permanently, like losing a photograph. Early in the book, the reader starts mapping the outline of Tsukuru’s silent wound – the one that he himself only starts picking out much later, when he’s told that he’s accustomed himself to living in pain. At this point, it’s just so clear why Tsukuru hurts, he just can’t see it yet. And that’s the novel’s intent.
As the narrative goes on, Tsukuru revisits the events in his life that he skirted over in the beginning. He realizes that, yes, the understated moment of his friends’ rejection was in fact of great emotional importance to him, affecting how he conducted himself for years afterwards. Other people explain how they view him, and both he and the reader gain new insights into his character and his way of sifting through the world.
If you’ve ever had anyone tell you something about yourself that was antithetical to what you believed, then you’ll recognize the feeling and its value in building a comprehensive image of your identity. This book is a delineation of that journey for a fictional character. Tsukuru comes to recognize first his status as a victim, then as a victimizer in a tangled web of interpersonal relationships. Actually, it’s less a web than a series of overlapping circles. The mutual microaggressions and imbalances of power are so minute they’re almost untraceable – all that’s left behind in the aftermath is the knowledge that damage was done, and that the people with the strength to do so need to find a way to keep living.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a breeze to read. Unlike some of Murakami’s weaker novels, the dots connect here. Murakami’s at his worst when the elaborate narrative builds up to an anticlimax or, even worse, doesn’t add up to anything. This happened in his last novel, IQ84, which was a spectacularly ambitious disappointment. The first half is riveting — Murakami is, if anything, a master at keeping the reader engaged — but as I reached the story’s midpoint, I started asking, “How on earth will he wrap this all up? It’s so crazy! I can’t imagine the resolution.” And it turned out that he couldn’t either. The novel deflated before my eyes. I was mad about it for years.
If you’ve ever been wounded and had to process the damage years later, then I recommend that you read this book. I firmly believe that Murakami is one of our best writers when it comes to cataloguing human thought, particularly how people understand and come to reconstruct themselves in the wake of trauma. If you’ve survived, read this book. If you haven’t, it might help you get through something, someday. I also recommend this book to people who are interested in Murakami and looking for an in to his work. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is light on the fantastical and conspiratorial elements that he’s known for, and could serve as a good stepping stone towards more daunting works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, or IQ84.
Murakami understands that on a basic level, it’s difficult to live in the world with other people. We’re just hopelessly relative beings, castigated with the ability to empathize – to approximate or presume to know another’s feelings – but we are unable to experience their depth in the way we do our own. This is the unexpressed basic struggle of existence, almost too obvious to talk about, as fundamental to us as our sense of touch. But Murakami talks about this struggle, evokes it beautifully, alongside the brief moments when we’re able to breach the gap through incredible, shared catharsis. Only art does it, and this is art. Pick it up.
Featured image courtesy of http://i.ytimg.com