“Though there is perpetual angst among his numerous fans at his being forever on the shortlists of the Nobel Prize committee without actually ever winning it (yet), I think I can understand to a degree the reluctance of the committee to award him,” writes Praveen Palakkazhi.
Haruki Murakami is a hugely popular and enduring novelist, probably one of the most globally well known in the literary space. This, one can say, is with good reason. He has a visibly unique way of expressing the existential angst of his regular everyman protagonists in simplified and easy-flowing prose. However, and this is probably why I have become less excited with Murakami novels over the years, he has a tendency to keep repeating himself to a huge degree. By no means is this a flaw inherent only in him. There are plenty of famous novelists who, once their style and trademark voice has been established, keep bringing it back with similar themes and characters that can be replaced from one of their books to another with no one any the wiser for it. One of my favorite novelists, John Irving, has a similar problem. But, while someone like Irving has the requisite heft and depth to his books that draws the reader into a familiar world each time with elated relish, Murakami’s themes after a point seem slightly shallow in their exposition. Though there is perpetual angst among his numerous fans at his being forever on the shortlists of the Nobel Prize committee without actually ever winning it (yet), I think I can understand to a degree the reluctance of the committee to award him. Nobel Prize winning authors are usually far reaching and wide in the range of themes they tackle and their work has a depth of linguistic style which I sometimes find lacking in Murakami novels.
Yet, despite all this, I have to admit that ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ is actually one of the better Murakami works I’ve read in recent years. Apart from the intriguing name, the regular Murakami tropes have been suitably spruced up with interesting meditations on life, love, friendship and the underlying principles of human nature which guide these poignant bonds. It reminds us that these bonds with other human beings which we form are interchangeably capable of both making us feel at home in an increasingly ambiguous and potentially hostile world, as well as breaking our spirits and asking us to seek within our own selves to find that salvation, always lies within.
The protagonist here is Tsukuru Tazaki, a railroad engineer working in Tokyo who is originally from Nagoya. True to form, Tsukuru Tazaki is a perpetually angst ridden and a relatively aimless individual, a state he feels he has been in from ever since he can remember. During his younger days in Nagoya, he was part of a group of friends who were as close as can be and almost perfect in their synchronization with respect to group dynamics. These friends, apart from Tsukuru, each have a name which can be associated with a color. Subconsciously, Tsukuru feels that this adds on to his notion that he is a person of no particular talent or vividness and is ‘colorless’. In Murakami’s own words, in the book:
“I have no personality, no defined color. I have nothing to offer to others. This has always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel.”
Once they finish their high school, Tsukuru decides to move away to Tokyo to pursue his interest in railroad engineering, while the others remain back in Nagoya. Out of the blue, on one particular visit back home, he cannot get in touch with any of them. Eventually, one of them lets him know that the group as a whole has decided to boycott him and will not speak to him or see him ever again. The reason for this is not spelt out to him and he is left hanging on the edge of the precipice which this revelation lands him in. His own doubts and insecurities on his personality, or lack of one as he sees it, come back to haunt him and drive him into a chasm of loneliness and despair. His eventual recovery alters something in him with respect to his relationships and he decides to bury the past (and his friends) without delving further into the reasons behind his estrangement. However, when he meets Sara, a woman for whom he starts feeling some serious affection and attraction, he realizes he may need to revisit the past again. Prompted by Sara, he sets off on a journey inwards and back to his childhood friends, to finally figure out what went so wrong for them in their seemingly unbreakable friendship. But is redemption something he wants or needs?
All the usual tropes follow. Tsukuru Tazaki is a typically frustrating Murakami narrator at times, hardly pushing himself to seek out the answers he so desperately needs for years. His ordinariness and reticent sense of self may appear annoying to a few, but it is obvious that this is just a byproduct of the gloomy existential angst which a lot of relatively well-off youngsters find themselves in when faced with a world and questions they don’t have the rules or answers for and when they don’t have basic survival as a more pressing concern. Sara is a more realistic girlfriend figure than some of the other chirpy (and of diametrically opposite nature) girls who previous protagonists of Murakami have got into relationships with. There are also some other staples here, like the weird sexual dreams Tsukuru has which addle his perception of his reality even further or the hinting of alternate universes where people are the same, and yet different. But some of these threads are brought into focus only for them to fall away and not be explored further. In his later college years, Tsukuru makes a friend, Haida, who brings some interesting passages and anecdotes with him and who mysteriously disappears one day. But this story doesn’t get a resolution beyond this.. The resolution to the main story thread is convincing to a degree and yet leaves you with questions which may never be truly answered. In this at least, I concur that it reflects life. Some questions don’t have answers and human behavior, especially in relationships, can never be truly rationalized and fully understood. Sometimes things just are.
The name of the book is a riff on Tsukuru’s ostracized meandering through life after his abandonment by his friends, and refers to a tune which is referenced a few times during the course of the book - 'Le mal du pays', a melancholic melody from Liszt's ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. As described in the book, the inexplicable longing and sadness one feels on viewing a certain pastoral landscape. And this theme along with the protagonist’s journey, Murakami has got it absolutely spot on – some pastures and vignettes from the landscape of our memories bring forth an undefinable yearning and sadness which can never be completely soothed.
Praveen Palakkazhi works in the Tech industry, though his primary interests lie in literature, world cinema and a bit of health and fitness. He lives with his wife Ashwathy in Bengaluru.