Thursday, August 14, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

One of the pleasures of reading Haruki Murakami is in finding the little jokes, the Easter eggs he places in his novels, which somehow arrive in front of us like overstuffed entrees and stingy appetizers at the same time. The title hero of Murakami’s latest novel takes a trip late in the story to Finland, hoping to learn the truth behind a 16-year-old mystery. As he arrives in Helsinki, he tells a taxi driver that he doesn’t like heavy baggage. By the time we reach this moment, we understand he is commenting on the weight of his life.

 “Colorless” opens with Tsukuru contemplating death for six months during his sophomore year in college. The reason: for several years, Tsukuru had four incredibly close friends with whom he shared sports, the arts, education and the slow climb to maturity. The group was comprised of two boys and two girls, all of whom possessed names with colors. All except Tsukuru, which is the reason he is “colorless.”

Tsukuru left their town for school in Tokyo, but returned home to visit. However, one day, one of the members of the group told him they no longer wanted anything to do with him. He must not contact them; he must not see them. There is no explanation given. This becomes the central trauma of Tsukuru’s life, as he is suddenly deprived of his identity and forced to abandon his emotional base and all of his happiest memories.

Later, Tsukuru describes the moment as being hurled into the ocean from the deck of a ship, left in the dark waves alone as the vessel surges on. The moment changes how Tsukuru sees himself. His nickname takes on new resonance, as he truly sees himself as colorless, without any distinguishing characteristics or redeeming aspects. He has been stripped of all confidence, and wonders if he can make any meaningful contact with anyone. He remains trapped emotionally in the feelings of his late adolescence, so that when he arrives at his contact with the reader, he is outwardly a successful professional man but a barren, stunted soul within.

Like Murakami’s other work, the novel’s passages melt into a fusion of the temporal and the spiritual, the real and the dream. Past, present and future mingle with destiny and reality, faith and facts. One is never sure exactly how accurately Tsukuru perceives the world around him. But as the work unfolds, there is also a sense that he is traveling a path already made for him. Judging by some reviews, the process as rendered in the novel is too superficial, or dwells too long in vague, dreamy passages for some readers. My only criticism is that Tsukuri’s journey seems taken up with several moments of searching for some new way to render the emotional twilight that has already been firmly established. Occasionally, some scene written as a new revelation sounds suspiciously identical to an earlier epiphany.

Slowly Tsukuru is able to rebuild his life. He finishes university, and fulfills a lifetime goal of designing train stations. He recreates himself in Tokyo, and eventually finds a friend in a man named Haida. But that friendship collapses in a way all too familiar, so that Tsukuru continues to live in fear, uncertainty and apprehension about himself and his place in the world. Any attachment may end suddenly, without explanation, due to some still shadowy flaw.

It is only when Tsukuru becomes involved with a woman, Sara, deep into his thirties, that he finally is able to confront the truth of what happened 16 years before. Sara, using social media, discovers what has happened to his friends.

Tsukuru seeks them out, one by one, questioning them and finding out why he is no longer among them. What struck me as most lifelike was the distance time grants to all. Tsukuru discovers that his friends have all travelled different, unexpected paths, yet understandable in hindsight. When his memories of himself collide with their memories of him, he is shocked at how oblivious he was to what his closest friends thought of him. How little we know each other, how little we know ourselves.

There is a perception of the calamity of existence, with Tsukuru seeing in other lives, as he has known in his, that awful, unexpected happenstance can wipe away everything. And despite our best intentions or planning, some things in life are simply gifts from heaven, with no explanation.

“An evil spirit possessed her,” Eri said softly, as if revealing a secret. “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. What happened with you, her eating disorder, what happened in Hamamatsu. I never actually wanted to put it into words. It’s like, if I did, it would really exist. So I kept it to myself all this time. I decided to never talk about it, until the day I died. But I don’t mind telling you this now, since we’ll probably never see each other again. And you need to know this. It was an evil spirit – or something close to it. In the end, Yuzu couldn’t escape.”

Murakami’s work happily fuses the commonplace and the ethereal, so we feel, as we often do in life, that the line between coincidence and destiny is not easily discernible. When does bad luck become “an evil spirit?” Perhaps the thing I most enjoyed about this novel was how I felt this apprehension, that wicked things happen in the world, and occasionally we cannot explain the magnitude of it, but merely stand grateful that it has not touched us most potently. Being swallowed by the whale means being consumed in a suffocating darkness that somehow, at the same time, saves us from the storm outside. While Tsukuru survived, not everyone was as lucky.

There is also the question of faith rewarded. Why does Tsukuru keep going? Not even he is sure, but he is a survivor, and he understands that some things cannot be explained, but endured. At one point, Tsukuru hears a story from his friend Haida about an encounter his father had with a man who was convinced he himself would die within a month’s time. He tells a complicated tale about his gaining an ability to see invisible things and learn hidden truths. It sounds like the testimony of a Christian, speaking heavenly truths amid the darkness of a fallen world:  

“I don’t care if you believe it. Because sooner or later you will. Someday you will die. And when you’re dying – I have no idea when or how that will happen, of course – you will definitely remember what I told you. And you will totally accept what I said, and understand every detail of the logic behind it. The real logic. All I did was sow the seeds.” 

The book’s ending isn’t completely satisfying, because we aren’t sure what happens to Tsukuru when he returns to his girlfriend Sara. When we occasionally wander into Murakami’s fantasias, we want a resolution he is unwilling to completely give. But the important thing, he seems to be saying, isn’t Tsukuru’s next step on the pilgrimage, but that he has finally made peace with what came before.  

I previously wrote about Murakami's "after the quake" here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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