Throughout his high school years, Tsukuru Tazaki was one of five extremely close-knit friends (three boys, two girls) in his hometown of Nagoya. Of the group, he was the only one not to have a colour in his name, so was nicknamed ‘Colourless’ Tsukuru Tazaki, something that subsequently coloured his own view of himself as being ‘An empty vessel. A colourless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding.’ He was also the only one of the five to leave Nagoya after high school, going to Tokyo to study engineering. Returning briefly in the middle of his sophomore year, he phones his friends only to find they’ve cut off relations with him. ‘Think about it, and you’ll figure it out,’ is all he’s told. But Tsukuru can’t figure it out, and he’s plunged into near-suicidal despair:
‘The door was slammed in my face, and they wouldn’t let me back inside. And they wouldn’t tell me why. But if that’s what all of them wanted, I figured there was nothing I could do about it.’
The novel begins sixteen years later. Living an empty but ordinary (colourless) life, Tsukuru is prompted by his latest girlfriend — the first he feels serious about — to track down his former friends and solve the mystery. Tsukuru is none too keen: ‘I’ve managed to slowly close up the wound and, somehow, conquer the pain. It took a long time. Now the wound is closed, why gouge it open again?’ Sara says: ‘Maybe inside the wound, under the scab, the blood is still silently flowing.’ She does the initial work (with social media, something Tsukuru, of course, doesn’t use), and comes up with the first shock: Shiro, ‘Miss White’, was murdered several years ago. Another of the group, Eri, married and moved to Finland, but the remaining two, the men, are still in Nagoya. Keen not to lose Sara, Tsukuru agrees to visit each of the surviving three and learn the truth about what he’s been dealing with on his own all these years.
It’s just before halfway through the novel that Tsukuru meets with the first of his former friends, Ao, head of a Lexus car dealership in Nagoya, and perhaps because of the much slower pace of Murakami’s last novel, the triple-decker 1Q84, I was almost shocked when, instead of the usual Murakami-ish evasions and mysteries-around-mysteries, Tsukuru actually gets most of the answers he’s looking for! But Colourless Tsukuru is a much shorter book than 1Q84 — and, I’d say, a better one. It’s a pity that (perhaps because of the economics of publishing such a huge novel) 1Q84 got so much press attention at the time of its release, drawing in so many readers new to Murakami, many of whom were left somewhat overwhelmed by the size and typically Murakami-ish incomprehensibilities of the book. Colourless Tsukuru, though by no means as barnstorming or epic a novel, is much more effective at telling its low-key tale of a quiet man coming to terms with the loneliness and rejection he’s borne throughout his adult life. (It’s a novel that could, even, be shorter still. An early episode in Tsukuru’s college years, featuring the only fantasy-tinged sequence in the book, could be removed, I think, without unduly affecting the rest of the novel. Aside from offering up an interesting but mostly detachable story-within-a-story, it left me expecting a resolution that never comes.)
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage addresses themes Murakami has dealt with before — intense early-life relationships derailed by mental illness (Norwegian Wood), social ostracism (“The Silence”, one of the better stories in The Elephant Vanishes) — but to me it felt like he was taking those themes a bit further, adding a little more maturity and perspective to the brew. There’s a real feeling of mere human beings doing what they can to face up to the dark forces of life, an attempt to rescue something meaningful from an early, life-defining wrongness that has blighted all the years that followed:
‘Life is long, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes victims are needed. Someone has to take on that role.’
By the end of the novel, mysteries remain, but these are just the tying up of plot threads; the central emotional core resolves, and it makes Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki a satisfying, if low-key offering from Murakami, and one that bolsters my faith in him after the frankly overlong 1Q84.