Haruki Murakami’s Weird, Wonderful World

Part sci-fi, part detective story, part fairy tale quest, ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ is the Japanese novelist at his strangest and best.

I’m always amazed by what the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami can do with a narrator’s voice. From book to book, it’s pretty much the same—at least as rendered into English: calm, unhurried, lucid, bemused, wry without being sarcastic, and always intelligent but somehow self-effacing. I’m not knocking the uniformity. That would be like criticizing Philip Marlowe for always sounding the same in Raymond Chandler novels (and it can’t be a coincidence that Murakami cites Chandler as one of his influences, since so many Murakami stories not only share the same voice but are cast in the form of mysteries, albeit sans trench coats, cigarettes, and fedoras). That matter of fact voice is, in fact, Murakami’s style, knitting together novels as disparate as Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and now Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

In the past, Murakami has often yo-yoed between romantic novels (Norwegian Wood) and more surreal fiction (1Q84), which I confess is more my preference. I like his weirder, more ambitious novels even when they go off the rails. But in all cases, it’s that pleasantly seductive voice that hooks me. Frankly, I’m hypnotized. How else to explain being captivated by stories that incorporate flat-out fantasy when I’m normally not much of a fantasy fan (hey, a sleeping woman just disappeared through a television screen—how cool, and how terrifying)?

Please don’t think I’m mounting a case for Fantasy For People Who Don’t Like Fantasy. The fantastic elements in Murakami’s stories are front and center (again: a sleeping woman disappears through a television screen). You can’t say you like his books and still say you don’t like fantasy. Me, I’m a hopeless opportunist in these matters. (I was going to say that I’m not fond of dungeons-and-dragons style fantasy but the frightening percentage of my cultural life devoted to the as-seen-on-TV variety of that genre says otherwise.) I take my fun where I can get it.

From the first time I read him, when a friend handed me a copy of A Wild Sheep Chase years ago and said, “This is different,” I have thought of Murakami as a singular artist, an uncharacterizable cat who walks by himself, like Carl Stalling or George Herriman (Sheep Chase is the best shaggy dog [sheep] story ever.) Reading him, no matter what he’s writing about, is to disappear for a little while into a fully realized alternate universe that is equal parts detective story, science fiction, comic strip, fairy tale, and daily routine. People in Murakami novels spend considerable time doing mundane things, like changing laundry, making dinner, and listening to music. Who can’t relate, no matter how strange the rest of it gets?

Music gets to step out of the chorus and take a major role in Tsukuru Tazaki. Murakami has always threaded music through his books, but nowhere is music as a bond between people more crucial than in this latest novel. One of the story’s characters is a talented pianist in high school, and as she and her friends become estranged, the memory of her playing—the sense that this was her at her best—is in the end all they have left of her. But the memory is powerful, and summoned again and again through a recording of a Liszt piece.

In this regard, Murakami can add interactive novelist to his list of attributes. The Liszt composition, Le Mal du Pays, played by Lazar Berman (the performance Tsukuru listens to obsessively) is already a YouTube hit. This, I suspect, is inevitable and intentional: Murakami references this performance so extensively in the course of the novel that he’s practically begging his readers to jump online or otherwise access it any way they can.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is structured as a straightforward quest story, a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. In high school, Tsukuru was one of five platonic but intimate friends who did everything together and thought as one. But in his sophomore year of college (only he left Nagoya to go away to school), out of the blue he gets a call from one of the friends announcing that the group is ejecting him. No explanation is given but the rejection is absolute.

Devastated, Tsukuru spends six months hauling himself back from the brink of suicide. He emerges, barely, pared to his essence, like a sculpture hacked from ice. Haunted by the thought that he is a hollow man, a man without qualities, and perplexed by the actions of his friends, he immerses himself in his job of designing train stations, sustained by the things he makes (Tsukuru means “maker” in Japanese), by the sense of order the stations embody and by the sheer beauty of the system of which they are a part—the perpetual, almost balletic interaction of trains and rails and timetables.

“Tsukuru visited railroad stations like other people enjoy attending concerts, watching movies, dancing in clubs, watching sports, and window shopping,” Murakami writes. “When he was at loose ends, with nothing to do, he headed to a station. When he felt anxious or needed to think, his feet carried him, once again of their own accord, to a station. He’d sit quietly on a bench on the platform, sip coffee he bought at a kiosk, and check the arrival and departure times against the pocket-sized timetable he always carried in his briefcase. He could spend hours doing this.”

Sixteen years pass before he acknowledges that “you can put a lid on memory, but you can’t hide history.” Only then does he begin in earnest to investigate what drove his friends to cast him out. Interviewing each in turn, the pilgrim quickly solves some of the riddles that have plagued him, only to find himself mired in deeper, darker mysteries.

As they so often are in Murakami novels, waking and dream states are sometimes indistinguishable for Tsukuru, not because reality is fuzzy but because both waking and dreaming carry equal clarity. There is one intensely sexual passage in which the protagonist cannot tell if he is sleeping or awake. But the moment suggests to him that if he is awake, then his reality is truly stranger and more menacing than he ever imagined. There may even be a part of him that he himself does not recognize, a second self that is capable of otherwise repugnant violence.

Ultimately, some mysteries are resolved, and some abide (enough plot threads are left open to suggest the possibility of a sequel). But Tsukuru is certainly colorless no more, nor troubled by the idea that he is a hollow man, precisely because he knows which mysteries can be explained. He is not without his troubles, but he is whole, and if the story does not end happily, it is nonetheless satisfying. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take satisfying over happy every time. This deft, delicately wrought story is Murakami at his best.