Tsukuru Tazaki was the only one in the group without anything special about him. His grades were slightly above average. He wasn’t especially interested in academics, though he did pay close attention during class and always made sure to do the minimum amount of practice and review needed to get by. From the time he was little, that was his habit, no different from washing your hands before you eat and brushing your teeth after a meal. So although his grades were never stellar, he always passed his classes with ease. As long as he kept his grades up, his parents were never inclined to pester him to attend cram school or study with a tutor.
He didn’t mind sports but never was interested enough to join a team. He’d play the occasional game of tennis with his family or friends, and go skiing or swimming every once in a while. That was about it. He was pretty good-looking, and sometimes people even told him so, but what they really meant was that he had no particular defects to speak of. Sometimes, when he looked at his face in the mirror, he detected an incurable boredom. He had no deep interest in the arts, no hobby or special skill. He was, if anything, a bit taciturn; he blushed easily, wasn’t especially outgoing, and could never relax around people he’d just met.
If pressed to identify something special about him, one might notice that his family was the most affluent of the five friends, or that an aunt on his mother’s side was an actress—not a star by any means, but still fairly well known. But when it came to Tsukuru himself, there was not one single quality he possessed that was worth bragging about or showing off to others. At least that was how he viewed himself. Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.
Tsukuru Tazaki sees himself as a bit of a blank slate—an uninteresting person without anything truly special separating him from the rest of the rank and file populace. It wasn’t always this way, though. He was once a part of something greater, an integral piece of a group of five colourful friends. Aka and Ao—red and blue—were the other men in the group, Shiro and Kuro—white and black—the women.
And then there was Tsukuru, who unlike his vibrant friends, had no colour, shade, or hue attached to his surname. He was, as a boy and later as a man, a creator of sorts, obsessed with train stations—with designing and building them, being a part of their creation (and thus being an integral cog in the social makeup of things). One day, during the summer of Tsukuru’s sophomore year at college in Tokyo, he received a call from Ao, telling him the group, all who’d remained at home in Nagoya, had decided to cut him free as if he were a tumour. Ao requested Tsukuru never contact any one of them again. When Tsukuru asked why, he was met with the ever frustrating and high school-like “if you don’t know we can’t tell you.”
So it was that Tsukuru found himself abandoned by those he’d grown closest to, without apparent reason or cause for their actions. For sixteen years the question of why he’d been so unceremoniously cut off from the group dogged him; for a time he was so preoccupied with death and feeling lost and unwanted in the world that his physical appearance changed. At thirty-six he starts dating a woman named Sara, two years his senior, who has definite feelings for Tsukuru but can also sense the weight of his past, unresolved and gnawing at him. If they’re to move forward, Sara says to him one night, then he must confront his past and learn why it was that the four people in the world for whom he had the most love so suddenly and viciously removed him from their lives. Sara decides to help Tsukuru in this endeavour, offering to locate his former friends so that Tsukuru can journey to them and finally come to understand a rather dark chapter of his past, one that has had long-lasting ramifications on who he is and how he sees himself.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is, in some ways, a return for Murakami to a style not seen in some time. Absent from this book are magical cats, alternate realities, and a predominance of both jazz and spaghetti—elements common to his more magical works like 1Q84 and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Instead, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is more familiar in style and vibe to Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun (the latter being my favourite of his works). It’s a grounded narrative, with its more whimsical elements isolated inside Tsukuru, confined to his dreams and self-doubt. However, that does not make it any less of a Murakami book.
Tsukuru is an interesting character, strangely enough, in that he feels intentionally dry and dispassionate. He views others as constantly flitting through him, leaving him with gaping holes he cannot close while maintaining their own physical and emotional integrity. His journey is one of completion—he is half the man he needs to be, and Sara knows it.
It isn’t long before Sara returns with the knowledge Tsukuru needs to embark on his quest—the locations of Aka, Ao, and Kuro, and the sad revelation that Shiro died six years earlier. The fate of his friends and the surprising directions their lives have taken—surprising to Tsukuru—become the catalyst Tsukuru needs to finally discover why it was they deleted him from their group sixteen years previously.
What I think I appreciated most about this book is that once the reason for Tsukuru’s banishment from the group is revealed—Shiro’s rape and how she told the others, falsely, that it was Tsukuru who was responsible—the novel doesn’t suddenly shift gears and become about debunking Shiro’s claims, or getting to the truth of what really happened that night or on the night she was murdered. Those mysteries are for another story—this is Tsukuru’s narrative, not Shiro’s. Though her actions led to his dismissal from the group, the narrative is about the at times crippling wounds Tsukuru received as a result, and not about solving the rape and murder of a friend they all eventually drifted away from as they in turn drifted from one another.
I hesitate to touch upon the meetings he has with Ao, Aka, and Kuro as they are the best parts of this narrative—the unexpected and wonderfully not tense and melodramatic encounters that ran quite contrary to what I expected. While they serve a critical role in filling in the gaps in Tsukuru’s knowledge of past events, what the encounters with his three friends really accomplish is in the colouring of Tsukuru’s persona: while he saw in a mirror a bland, uninteresting fellow, his friends reveal how they viewed in him a strength of character that none of them could match. This is why, even though not one of them believed Tsukuru was capable of committing a crime as heinous as rape, they chose to favour the claims of what they perceived as the weakest and most fragile among them by allowing themselves to sacrifice the strongest, knowing that he would in fact survive on his own, without the others to prop him up. As Kuro put it:
“Because I had to protect her…. And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other entirely.”
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is not among Murakami’s best or most imaginative works, but it is enjoyable for what it is: an exercise in detailing one person’s quest toward self-confidence and self-awareness. It has its slow, plodding moments, many of which could easily have been excised from the whole in favour of a quicker, more finely crafted read (more or less anything with “Mister Gray”—Fumiaki Haida—who exists primarily to further the thesis that everyone eventually flits out of Tsukuru’s life with an unfortunate ease). Those moments aside, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a fairly effortless read—it moves along smoothly, and I never lost interest in Tsukuru’s pursuit of the truth. By the end, regardless of the outcome of his relationship with Sara, he is a much different person than when he began this personal pilgrimage. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a book predicated on catharsis and its ability to make whole that which had been broken.