Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

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Reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki after 1Q84, one is struck by how much is different and how much remains the same.

Colorless is, in many ways, the antithesis of Murakami’s preceding opus, 1Q84. It’s much shorter, much more down-to-earth, less obstinately enigmatic, and has a greater (but still frustratingly lacking) semblance of narrative resolution. On the other hand, it’s not quite in the vein of Norwegian Wood or Sputnik Sweetheart, either. There are definitely elements of unsettling magical realism that pepper Colorless, bearing striking similarities to the tropes employed in 1Q84 and his other more reality-bending novels. One could almost say they take place in the same mythos. But this time, these elements aren’t as central to the essential story that Murakami tells in the book.

Colorless, in fact, tells a compelling, surprisingly down-to-earth story, a tightly plotted narrative arc about a character who needs a strong dose of self-confidence, and who goes some way to achieving it through undertaking a pilgrimage through the remnants of his past. The eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki was once a part of an unusually close-knit group of friends until college, where they all abruptly abandoned him. Adrift and unable to form strong emotional connections after that trauma, he drifts through life until a catalyst in the form of a woman he likes convinces him to confront his past by meeting his estranged friends after years of separation.

Tsukuru is, in many ways, the typical Murakami protagonist, the introverted, introspective but self-sufficient Japanese bachelor with commitment issues. But Tsukuru Tazaki strikes a chord because his emotional disconnect stems from a surprisingly prosaic place – the trauma of abandonment and the resulting sense of crushing self-doubt. Tsukuru is colorless – his name, alone among his group of friends, does not contain a kanji associated with a certain color. He likens himself to an empty vessel – without a distinguishing trait or feature to offer other people. Murakami has always had a knack for illustrating the interior states of characters with simple but vivid metaphors, but with Tsukuru, Murakami has managed to exteriorise those images by having his characters talk them through in a way that feels much more grounded in reality than in his previous work.

But there seems to be a more significant distinction. Tsukuru’s character arc, as I see it, is really about growing out of the Murakami protagonist mold. Tsukuru is a Murakami protagonist by trauma and circumstance – rootless, itinerant, unanchored to other humans and society – but the entire book sees him re-establishing lost connections with people and with society. We see him cast away that studied otherworldliness and aimlessness of his past self as he becomes aware of that need for a persistent and positive human connection. And he comes to terms with his past in ways that are satisfyingly cathartic to him and to the reader. His life has been in cold emotional stasis since that traumatic incident of emotional abandonment – and now he can finally move forward and emote on a human level.

Which is why the ending to Colorless, while at first annoyingly open, is actually not a bad place to end, despite the lack of the simple resolution we, the readers, have been craving. Because Tsukuru’s arc is done. He has undergone that thawing and transformation, and has moved away from that rootlessness to a desire for rootedness. He is ready to join the prosaic world. Anything beyond that really is not important – whether he gets what he desires is secondary to the fact that he now truly desires what he desires.

While Tsukuru is no stranger to the uncanny and the mysterious – he does experience some trademark Murakami-style dream-states and unexplainable events occur around him, those elements seem peripheral to this central arc. Those uncanny touches, however, add that signature element of irreality into parts of the narrative. And it feels like Tsukuru’s arc is a bid to disassociate himself from the fount of the unsettling nature of Murakami’s magical reality. One could say that Shiro – the victim of those “evil elves” – was consumed by the elements of that magical reality because she was unable to cope with the changes and strictures of entering the real, grounded world. Tsukuru is, then, the opposite – the strong one whose psyche was cauterised against that world, but who continued to experience some of its effects until he goes back and reconciles himself with the past. Tsukuru, in a sense, has, rare among Murakami’s characters, escaped the clutches of Murakami’s menagerie of dream-states.

At least, that’s my interpretation. The thing about Murakami is that his better work can be enjoyed on multiple levels – on one level, as a joyous, flowing reading experience where the irreal and the hyperreal mingle together in an onrushing torrent of prose – and on another level, as a murky, imagery-laden plumb into the depths of another reality ajar from our own. How deep the rabbit hole the reader goes – is really up to them.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 railway stations

 

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