Book Review: “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage”

Book Review: “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage”

There are writers who write strange stories, stories so weird and original, that they baffle another with their creativity. And then there are strange writers who write strange stories, and these are the writers who are truly original, perplexing others with their bizarre and highly unusual structure of their stories. They confront the limitations of literature, and they challenge readers to question the phantasmical qualities of the reality among the pages and lines.


Haruki Murakami undoubtedly belong to the latter, along with the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Yukio Mishima, and Franz Kafka. His works more often than not, alienates his readers, some hailing him as the next Samuel Beckett, while others dismissed him as a trashy pop writer, and regarded his entireĀ oeuvre as typical post-modern kitsch. Why such extreme polarities?

Fyodor Dostoevsky: The great Russian writer


H.P Lovecraft: The call of Cthulhu


Franz Kafka: The metamorphosis


Yukio Mishima: The “samurai” who cuts his own belly


Contrary to what we claim everyday in our lives, we like familiarity, and we embrace art in a similar way. Works that stepped out of the norm are likely to be despised and hated, precisely for its originality. That’s why books or music that fit our habitualized preferences are commercially successful, when they are anything but masterpieces. Nicholas Sparks’ repetitive romance novels, Maroon 5’s unoriginal (and even cliched) lyrical qualities are precisely those that topped charts and stay on it. When Radiohead’s music or Dostoevsky’s novels are first publicized, they are hardly what we now refer to as successful ventures. They are criticized as destroying art, and for not conforming to pre-established norms. You may respond, “But they are critically acclaimed now! You lied!” But that is exactly the point, because it is only after several decades, or even centuries, that these initially despised works received their acclaim, as we slowly get used to them. They are trend starters, who created a new category for what defines art. They are “hipsters” who slowly become assimilated into the mainstream.

But enough of my rantings, time to move on to my main point here, which is Murakami’s new book. Murakami is a weird writer, that is without a doubt, and I think many here will agree with me. Most of his famous books incorporate Kafkaesque surrealism, making them having a very dreamy, and even creepy atmosphere. From “Hard-Boiled Wonderland”, “A Wild Sheep Chase”, & “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” to his more recent works, “1Q84”, “Kafka on the Shore” (he likes Kafka… very much), and “After Dark”, all of these are very much strange but fascinating stories of people being swallowed up by absurd situations, meeting equally strange people along the way, while going on a frightening journey that borders on hilarity. His mind is a blender, and the things he suggest are very much out of this world, but at the same thing, there is a common theme among his works.

Fabulous Murakami is Fabulous

He incorporates themes of fate, of unrequited love, urban alienation, classical & jazz music, contemporary psyches, loneliness, death, graphic violence and sex (beware, there are many scenes of this type) and cats (lots and lots of cats) into the strangeness of his fictional world. Most of these books have a bland or eccentric man as a narrator, who often more than not, meets an extraordinary female, has their foundations of their reality shaken up by some catastrophic event, and embarked on a self-searching journey.

Cats… I wonder why…
A diagram analysis of Murakami

But that’s not all. The above-mentioned books are surrealistic books, but he also writes several books that are more down-to-earth and grounded more on our well-recognized reality, such as “Norwegian Wood”, “Sputnik Sweetheart” (although this one is exceptionally strange as well), “South of the Border”, & this book which we will discuss shortly hereafter. These are the books which are my favorites (although I like “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” a lot). Not only because they are more realistic, but because in these works, he explored the aforementioned themes in much more clarity and detail, and because it is more realistic, we can, more easily, relate to them, as compared to a man who talks with cats (as in the main character in “Kafka on the Shore”). It has been a while since he wrote a book that is so realistic, it comes as a shock for me as a long time fan of his, and that’s why this book recently became one of my favorites of his.

In “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki”, the main character, after being ousted by his four high school friends, became very much distraught and suicidal. He grow up without knowing the specific reasons for why he was ostracized, and the traumatic experience of being expelled from his close and tightly knitted group made him change dramatically. After 16 years without knowing why, his recent girlfriend requested him to tie up the know, and pursue the mystery before they move on to a more serious relationship. And this story is about a journey, that Tsukuru Tazaki carry out in order to search for the truth, and also himself.

Doesn’t this story seem very familiar to us all? Throughout our lives, we make friends, not only for the sake of making friends and socializing, but also, to some extent, to survive. A social tie is proof that we are alive, that we belong somewhere, and that we are worthy of another’s regard. Humans are after all, social animals.

But because there are so many friends that we make, there are bound to be some who became strangers. It is a natural process, and although it is slightly depressing to acknowledge it, it does happen, a lot. Think about it, how many of our primary school friends are still in our social circles after we graduated from university, where the pressure to work and marry placed a heavy burden on us all? Not many, I will presume. And even if there are reunions or meet-ups, we converse, but gradually, we realize that the topic runs out. We indulge in the same conversations over and over again, reminiscing the same old memories of the good old times because we have not time enough to make new ones together. Friendship demands experiencing the same things together, and after a while of separation, the tie loosens. We start talking like grown-ups, topics like politics, the economy, and even marriage surfaced. Banters and jokes lessened, and it just doesn’t seem “fun” and “lively” anymore.

In Tsukuru Tazaki’s case, it is a much more extreme one, one in which he is totally excluded from a group. Some may experience this, others may not. But the pain is obvious, and the scar horrifying. Imagine a person at the peak of his life, venturing out in a foreign city, believing that there is some place else that he totally belongs, that he can totally fit into. And then imagine that one day he is told that he can no longer go back to his haven. It is devastating. An animal wouldn’t survive the exclusion from its herd.

But survive he did, with courage and dignity, although in the process, he lost something, something essential to make new friends, something that makes him connect with others. And I would venture out and make a speculation in his case, that he lost his trust towards others, and because friendship demands trust, he became isolated.

Isolation is a much discussed theme in Murakami’s books, and he depicts the harmful as well as the strange but tenderly beautiful side of loneliness with so much insight, it becomes terrifying. Much like Cioran who depicts insomnia with extreme clarity, Murakami’s depiction of isolation is on a class of his own.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” is a lovely novel, an exploration of a person’s descend into madness, and how he managed to overcome it. It describes the existential loneliness that we feel sometimes with regards to our own isolation, and it expounds on fears of being alone, and of being afraid of our own uselessness. It explores the notion of how time and space affects a person’s relationship with others (much like the animated movie, “5 Centimeters per Second”), and most of all, it describes the fluidity of our mind, the ability to adapt.

“5 Centimeters per Second”: Go watch it. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and life-changing

Humans are such durable creatures that we can adapt to even the worst circumstances imaginable, although not all succeed in the process of overcoming our fears. Some triumphed in the face of adversity, others fall by the sword of catastrophe, but the fact that courage can triumph over the calamity of our random human lives should not be overlooked. The Romantics of the nineteenth and twentieth century described it as the unbeatable “human spirit”, and psychologists nowadays termed it in more scientific terms, such as “resiliency”.

But one thing can be extracted from all these teachings, passed down from these giants of the past, and it applies to the experiences that Tsukuru Tazaki had endured:

This too shall pass. And in passing, we find not answers, but ourselves, which is worth more than mere solutions.

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