Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

cover imageThroughout 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.

inner coverIt’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.

1Q84

I prefer the pronunciation “q-teen-eighty-four” to the “one-q-eighty-four” touted on Wikipedia, but I can’t remember where I got it from, now. Anyway, it’s the title of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, published as a three-decker in Japan (the first two volumes simultaneously in 2009, the third in 2010), but in the UK just over a month ago, as two hardbacks. I’ve spent most of the intervening month reading it.

Told in alternating chapters following its two main characters, Aomame (female) and Tengo (male) — though a third joins the rotation for volume three — 1Q84 is, according to Murakami, based on the same idea as his story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” (published in English in The Elephant Vanishes back in 1993, but it can be found online here). The main difference between the two is that “100% Perfect Girl” is just under four and half pages long; 1Q84 is nine hundred and eighty seven.

The story starts with the two characters following their normal, separate, rather lonely lives. Tengo teaches maths at a “cram school” by day, and tries to write novels in the evening; Aomame is a fitness instructor who occasionally performs the odd idealistic assassination, revenging female victims of domestic abuse. One day Tengo is contacted by Komatsu, a somewhat unconventional editor he knows, wanting to involve him in a possibly dodgy scheme to rewrite a powerful but flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl, Eriko Fukada, who turns out to be a refugee from a secretive religious cult. At the same time, Aomame starts to realise that the world, as she knows it, is subtly different: policemen, for instance, wear different uniforms and carry different guns, and there are now two moons in the sky instead of one. The world is no longer our 1984, but an alternative reality of 1Q84, where the “boundary between the real world and the imaginary one has grown obscure.”

As a long-time reader of Murakami, my fascination in reading him is as much to do with watching Murakami the storyteller in action as it is with the stories he tells. Seeing how he cooks up his plots — simmering scenes & ideas with repetitions and diversions till he finds a viable thread to follow, occasionally throwing in a new ingredient, say a new character, or a plot twist, or just letting things noodle along. And pretty soon after starting 1Q84 many of the traditional Murakami ingredients were there — protagonists who are highly competent at their jobs but who are still searching for the real vein of meaning in their lives, portentous but peculiar phone calls at odd times, the occasional animal (here, a crow) who appears & reappears at seemingly significant moments, a dark & violent male authority figure lurking behind the scenes, an elderly female figure trying to heal & protect, a quirky teenage girl who seems to have an insight into all the weirdness that’s going on, love hotels, suicidal school friends, a lot of cooking meals and listening to old records, just to name a few.

Murakami is a marathon runner (his last non-fiction book was about marathon running, with a few tentative links to writing), and he seems to have taken the telling of this tale as he might a marathon, beginning with an easy, steady pace, and continuing at the same, determined trot, gradually picking up momentum till you feel there’s a real story going on. That’s how I felt till about halfway through the second volume, anyway, whereupon either I or Murakami hit the Wall and began to falter.

As much as I love Murakami, and am happy to follow his quirks, I think 1Q84 is too long. I don’t like long books generally, mostly because there are so many other books I want to read, and I tend to resent the one I’m reading if it takes up more time than its readerly rewards seem to justify. 1Q84, as a book, generated some real promise in the first volume, started fulfilling it in the second, but really stopped giving for most of the third, where too many of the characters were sitting at home waiting for things to happen, and Murakami introduced some story-threads that really felt like they were just passing time.

There are two types of long books that work: otherworld fantasies, where the size of the book is a necessary part of the immersiveness of the reading experience, and those Victorian meganovels that try to encompass as much of the broad-view stuff of life as possible — things like Middlemarch, Bleak House or War and Peace. Murakami, though, is more a writer about individuals, often quirky individuals, and their passage through a sort of early-mid-life psychic crisis, often beginning with a sense of loss (or the actual loss of a loved one, usually in some fantastic rather than mundane way), a period of intense, often hallucinatory loneliness, and then perhaps an eruption of sudden, frightening violence. His stories pass through weird, often best-unresolved moments of David Lynch-like fantasy, as some sort of unconscious conflict is faced. And these are wonderful stories, but I don’t think they work when spun out too long.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like 1Q84. It came to a satisfying ending, as I knew it would, and I instantly forgave it its longueurs; but during them (most of volume three, apart from the early Ushikawa chapters), I was frustrated at the feeling that I was just being strung out before an ending was reached. My favourite Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is quite long, but it never felt too long, perhaps because it contained at least one independent secondary story. Here, once Aomame and Tengo’s stories are thoroughly linked, they’re perhaps too tethered together to act in contrast to each other, which is the main advantage of telling stories in parallel.

But, as I say, as soon as I finished it, I forgave it all that. However, I would say that 1Q84 isn’t the ideal place to start reading Murakami. After The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my favourites are the shorter novels and the longer short stories — South of the Border, West of the Sun and After Dark, as short novels, would be excellent starting points if you want to read some Murakami, as are the longish short stories in After the Quake. But 1Q84 has received a lot of positive reviews, and a great deal of success in Japan. There really were some quite moving passages. Perhaps all I really want to say is, it may be good, but he’s done better.

What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.

On Re-Reading Books

farnsworthIn the words of Futurama’s dithery Professor Farnsworth, “Good news, everyone!” — apparently, I am incredible. At least, I am according to this rather fatuous report, “Oops — I Read It Again!” (link from Neil Gaiman’s blog).

Why am I incredible? (You read my blog, yet have to ask?!) Because, it seems, I’m part of a rare 13% of the reading population — not just that 77% of it who admit to having “enjoyed a book* so much that they’ve gone back to read it again” (I’m not sure why “book” gets an asterisk — perhaps it’s a term that needs a more precise definition for the sort of people who read a site with a name like booktrade.info), but I’m part of the 17% who “have re-read a favourite tome more than five times” (surely not all of them were tomes, you lazy journalist, you — try scratching your head a few times before reaching for the thesaurus!)

Alright, so maybe reading a book — or several, I’ll not get into specifics yet — five times or more is odd, but surely it’s not “incredible”? But that’s just the word-geek in me getting picky. (To show how picky I can get, I also wonder why the report gives “C. S. Lewis” a full-stop after each initial, “J. K Rowling” only one, and “JRR Tolkien” none.) What makes this all the more distressing is that this is a report, I assume, from some sector of the book trade itself — as if the trade were so assured the wares it sells are so deeply worthless that reading them even once, after buying them, were to take things a bit far. (Certainly true in the case of sleb biographies and their like — maybe that’s the special meaning of book-with-an-asterisk I was looking for.)

Now that my incredible nature is out in the open, I might as well be frank about it. Not only do I habitually re-read books, I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it’s worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.

fantasy_100_bestI haven’t always been like this. I used to be un-incredible, at least most of the time. (Except as a kid. All kids demand re-reading of the books they like. They’re not stupid.) I can’t actually pinpoint when my incredible, perhaps even mythical, status kicked in, but aside from re-reading favourite Doctor Who novelisations (which, at one point in my life, were all I read), I tended to read books only once. What happened was something like this: I kept buying new books and finding they were bad. After a while, getting distressed that I hadn’t read anything good for a while, and worried that it was me that had gone wrong rather than the hallowed publishing industry, I decided to revisit a book I had enjoyed, just to make sure. To my relief, I found I enjoyed it even more. And then, perhaps, other new approaches to this whole business of “reading books” (that’s books-without-asterisks) started to suggest themselves. Such as the idea that books which have been around for a long time, and which have continually been published and read for decades, if not centuries, might actually be better than new books. Classics, as they’re sometimes called, even by people without thesauruses. This was when I started reading (and re-reading) books like Moorcock and Cawthorne’s Fantasy: 100 Best Books and Horror: The 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and doing bizarre things like frequenting secondhand bookshops.

I know I’m probably still in a minority to re-read at least as much as I first-time read, but I do genuinely find it more pleasurable to re-read a book. Perhaps this is in part because I am, by nature, rather untrusting and over-critical as a reader. I want to know a book is worth investing in before I really go for it 100% in the reading — but if I am untrusting, it’s only because I’ve read so many bad and disappointing books that I’ve ended up that way.

murakami_sputniksweetheartThe main objection to re-reading a book is that there’s no point because you know what’s going to happen. But, to me, knowing what’s going to happen not only doesn’t matter, it actually makes it better. Exposed to stories as much as we are, we’ve all developed enough of a “story sense” to second-guess where a story is going anyway, and the real pleasure of a twist-in-the-tale is not so much the twist itself, as how skilfully it’s handled. My two most recent re-reads are both minor books by favourite authors — Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, and The Violet Apple by David Lindsay. The first time I read Sputnik Sweetheart was when I’d just discovered Murakami. At the time, I’d only read his massive (genuinely tome-like) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and in comparison found the slim Sputnik Sweetheart a bit disappointing, though with a strikingly weird bit in the middle (where a young woman gets stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel for the night and has an experience that turns her hair completely white), mainly because I wasn’t sure how to understand the end. Re-reading it, knowing how it ended, everything fell into place and made sense, and I had time to relax and understand other things about the book, like how each of the three main characters faces the same sort of strange crisis, but one evades it, one falls before it, and one — maybe — triumphs. With The Violet Apple, I found that knowing what was going to happen at the end only made the build-up much more poignant and emotionally powerful. (That’s how tragedy always works. Macbeth’s downfall was only a surprise for Macbeth himself.)

Another possible peculiarity of mine comes into play here, and this is to do with re-reading books by certain authors. The more you read of an author’s work, the more you get to understand them, and the more you get out of reading them. The first time I read the David Lindsay book, The Violet Apple, I was still under the spell of his most famous and impressive book, A Voyage to Arcturus, and so I read The Violet Apple with that other book in mind. But The Violet Apple is a very different book. It’s very un-fantastic, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is almost nothing but fantastic; it’s also very human, whereas A Voyage to Arcturus is starkly inhuman. A Voyage to Arcturus could never contain a sentence such as “She could not bear that awful family loneliness and unsympathy”, but The Violet Apple does and, knowing Lindsay to be capable of writing such a sentence, I will in future re-read A Voyage to Arcturus slightly differently.

You don’t listen to a favourite song only once, do you? Why should books be any different, just because they take more time to re-experience? Human beings are memory-loving creatures. We treasure our experiences and go back over them, in our heads, again and again. Sometimes we do this to understand the experiences better, sometimes it’s just because revisiting them is so enjoyable. The reading of a book is an experience just like any other, and the reasons for doing it can be just the same.

fourtimesbooksTo end off, a not-necessarily-complete list of books I’ve read four times or more (with no explanations or apologies — though, to intensify my weirdness, I’ll say that at least two in this list are books I’ve re-read straightaway after reading them for the first time): Moving Zen by C W Nicol, The Belgariad by David Eddings, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, The Outsider by Colin Wilson, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, The Influence by Ramsey Campbell, The Drowned World by J G Ballard, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd… Not to mention the countless short stories I’ve re-read many more times than four or five. Short stories are, after all, so much more re-readable. But simply reading short stories nowadays is enough to commit you to a very dark and dingy corner of the asylum reserved for book-readers. Catch you re-reading the things, and they throw away the key. Before you eat it, or do yourself an injury with it or something.

Comment imported from the old version of Mewsings:
Gavin Burrows

Hi Murray, My response here!

http://lucidfrenzy.blogspot.com/2007/12/time-to-stop-consuming.html