Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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In the introduction to his short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami writes, “To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy.” After the epic 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage must have felt like a joy. Where 1Q84 was big and deliberately paced, bringing its two protagonists together slowly, over nearly 1,000 pages, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is brief, light on its feet and spare with descriptions. Where 1Q84 focused on many lives full of strange mysteries, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki focuses on the strange mysteries of a single life. It is Murakami’s most emotionally earnest and straightforward work since Sputnik Sweetheart.

Murakami is still preoccupied with classical music, dreams, loneliness, and human connection. The titular protagonist, a train station engineer in Tokyo, lives a plain, solitary life. He is “colorless” because, in high school, he was part of a close-knit group of friends, all of whom had colors in their names, rendering them Mister Red, Mister Blue, Miss White, and Miss Black. Tsukuru, on the other hand, means “create” or “make,” a fitting name for a future engineer. But when he was young the name made him feel excluded from the group. Everyone else seemed to have their own thing. “Did the others really need him?” he wonders.

After Tsukuru leaves Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo, he seems to receive an answer to that question. One summer, when he’s visiting home from school, his friends ignore him, refusing to take his calls or even acknowledge him. Finally, Ao (Mister Blue) calls him and unceremoniously instructs Tsukuru to “not call any of us any more.” Tsukuru is understandably devastated, especially since Ao refuses to explain the group’s reasoning. “Think about it,” he says, mysteriously, “and you’ll figure it out.” Confused and destroyed, Tsukuru falls into a deep pit of isolation, misery and existential confusion, a period from which he emerges reborn—not as a newly defined person but as an “empty vessel,” finally embodying the colorlessness of his name.

Sixteen years later, an adult Tsukuru meets a woman named Sara. He begins to fall for her, and she tells him that he must “come face-to-face with the past” and get over the “problems [he’s] been carrying around” for sixteen years.” He must go and visit his former friends and find out once and for all why they suddenly and inexplicably excommunicated him from the “special chemistry” that “could never be reproduced.”

Murakami typically structures his books using two parallel narratives that sometimes meet, and sometimes don’t. Colorless Tsukuru is no different, except here the division exists within a single character: on one side, Tsukuru’s investigation into his past; on the other, his dream life and his haunted feeling that those very dreams may have more dire consequences than he imagined. In college, after he finally recuperates from the intense pain of his banishment, Tsukuru mets a young man named Haida (another color: gray), who becomes his first friend since high school. They become close, even sharing an apartment in the city. One night, Tsukuru wakes up and feels “the presence in the room of someone else, concealed in the darkness, watching him.” It’s Haida, or at least “a kind of projection that had slipped free of the real Haida.” Finally, the figure leaves the room, and Tsukuru has a sex dream about the two girls from the colorful group. But when he comes, “he wasn’t coming inside Shiro [Miss White], but in Haida,” who had “taken Tsukuru’s penis in his mouth.” Shortly after this, Haida, too, disappears from Tsukuru’s life, abruptly and without explanation, leading Tsukuru to wonder if “Haida had partially absorbed Tsukuru’s sin, his impurity, and as a result he had had to go far away.”

The worry that his dreams have some proverbial effect on reality is compounded when he discovers, from Sara, that Shiro (the one he always dreamed about) has since died. It gets even worse when he’s told that the reason his friends abandoned him was because Shiro told them that Tsukuru had raped her. And worse still, when he learns that Shiro hadn’t simply died but was murdered—strangled, in fact.

Once Tsukuru sets out to confront his past, the book falters and stumbles toward an unsatisfying conclusion. The figure of Shiro, I think, is the problem. To begin with, the reader is never given a scene of the original group in their prime. We are told of their harmony, their synchronicity, but we never feel it. Thus, when Tsukuru talks to each one as adults, their reminiscing fails to generate any emotional resonance. How could it? We’re listening to characters nostalgically discuss an era we really weren’t around for.Tsukuru’s friends function as ciphers for Tsukuru’s journey of self-discovery, and since that self-discovery is predicated upon (and derived from) his relationship with them, both the characters and the journey fall a little flat.

But it is Shiro, the star of his sexual dreams, who spoils the novel’s attempt at contemplative self-examination. Shiro does not appear in a single scene; everything we learn about her is told through (often clunky) dialogue, like this, from adult Miss Black: “[Shiro] insisted to the bitter end that you [Tsukuru] stole her virginity at your place in Tokyo. For her, this was the definitive version of the truth, and she never wavered. Even now I don’t understand where that delusion came from, and why she clung to that distorted version of reality.” But, she clarifies, “I’m no psychoanalyst.”

To recap Shiro’s life: she falsely accuses Tsukuru of rape, which her friends believe is a “delusion,” she gets pregnant from the rape, miscarries, develops an eating disorder, loses “the glow she used to have,” and gets strangled alone in her apartment. Not only is this a pretty lazily irresponsible depiction of a woman, but it’s one that becomes all the more offensive because of Shiro’s complete absence from the narrative. Now, this would be a useful technique if, through the other characters, we were given a full portrait of a complicated person. Instead, the characters say things like, “Whatever the circumstances might have been, she didn’t deserve to die like that. But at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that the life had already been sucked out of her, even before she was physically murdered,” and “An evil spirit possessed her… It clung to her, breathing coldly on her neck, slowly driving her in a corner. That’s the only thing that can explain all that happened to her.” Ummm, really? Because it sounds like the explanation is simple: male brutality. It was a man who raped her, impregnated her, and caused her intense inner damage, and it was most probably a man who strangled her to death. Any attempt to attribute these horrific occurrences to something inside of Shiro, even something vague and abstract, is reprehensible. The only thing Shiro did wrong was falsely accuse Tsukuru, which to me seems more an indication of intense pain than it does some “delusion.”

Tsukuru, for his part, is able to “forgive” Shiro for her accusation, because “she was a weak person who lacked the hard, tough exterior with which to guard herself.” How was she weak? Because she wasn’t able to stop a rapist? Tsukuru goes on:

But in the end, no matter how far she ran, she couldn’t escape, for the dark shadow of violence followed her relentlessly. What Eri dubbed an evil spirit. And on a quiet, cold and rainy May night, it knocked at her door, and strangled her lovely slim throat. In a place, and time, that had, most likely, already been decided.

An “evil spirit” is a convenient metaphor, and the language here smacks of victim-blaming (notice, too, that Tsukuru (and Murakami) can’t help but sexualize Shiro here, even when describing her murder).

Shiro exists only as the sum total of the violence inflicted upon her, while Tsukuru worries about his dreams of fucking her. Shiro is not a character; she isn’t even a woman. She embodies a kind of male anxiety about women. When Tsukuru thinks about “those dreams, and Yuzu’s [Shiro’s real name] insistence that he had raped her (and her insistence that she was carrying his baby), he found he couldn’t totally dismiss it out of hand as some made-up story.” The realm of dream, here, intermingles with reality:

It might have all been a dream, but he still couldn’t escape the feeling that, in some indefinable way, he was responsible. And not just for the rape, but for her murder. On that rainy May night something inside of him, unknown to him, may have slipped away to Hamamatsu and strangled that thin, lovely, fragile neck.

Even as Tsukuru imagines killing Shiro, he still sexualizes her. She’s only a component of his interior life. Her death was his fault because he used to dream of coming inside her.

For all its narrative momentum and folksy charm, Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage ultimately falls under the weight of Shiro’s absence. But I don’t think the novel would have benefited from her presence, because I don’t believe Murakami ever had a fully realized concept of Shiro. He was more interested in leading Tsukuru to his own gentle epiphany—that he isn’t, after all, colorless. The novel ends ambiguously, but things are looking okay for Tsukuru.

A novelist makes choices—each element of a given book (from the smallest detail to the most prominent theme) reflects those choices. Murakami, who is undoubtedly a great novelist, does not usually make decisions carelessly. Here, the brutality inflicted upon Shiro is meant merely to amplify the internal plight of Tsukuru. Shiro ends up not just a sexist, irresponsible depiction, but a lazy one, too. The world of this novel, it turns out, does reflect reality— inadvertently or not, it is patriarchy in distilled form. A mostly bland male lives a mostly bland life. How will he ever come out of his shell? How will he learn that everything’s okay for him and that he isn’t so bland after all? Meanwhile, a glimmer of a character, a woman, resides desperately in the background, crying out, only to be ignored in the interest of Tsukuru’s journey of self-discovery. Tsukuru is worth more than Shiro. When Tsukuru worries that he’s responsible for her rape and death, he’s right, just not for the reasons he thinks.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Read It Forward. His work has also appeared in Tin House, the Atlantic, the San Francisco ChronicleThe MillionsRolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →