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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami


I’m finally back on track! After close to a month of reading very little literary fiction and too much “escapist” fare, I finally got around to reading a book that I can actually review for this blog. Today’s book has been sitting on my TBR shelf at home for a while so it’s about time. Keep reading to see what I thought, although those of you who know me well can probably guess.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Published in: 2013 (English translation 2014)
Original language: Japanese
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 4 stars
Find it/buy it here: Colorless Tsukuru

It’s no secret that I love Murakmi’s work (you can check out our featured author post on Murakami here). This novel is more along the lines of Norwegian Wood than his “traditional” works in its seeming simplicity (for a Murakami novel) and lack of magical elements. I say “seeming” because the book is only simple on the surface. It has great depth below the surface. Readers who want to try Murakami but dislike magical realism should start with either this one or Norwegian Wood.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki follows the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man whose name means “to make.” In some ways it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s a Murakami-esque coming-of-age story complete with loose ends and unresolved questions. We first encounter Tazaki as a lonely man in his late thirties who seems to be lacking something in his life. The book jumps around in time and also has some quirky stories nested within the main storyline.

As a teenager, Tsukuru reveals that he was part of a close knit group of friends and they were as close as “five fingers on a hand.” However, even as part of this group, Tsukuru was filled with self-doubt. Each of Tazaki’s four friends have names that translate at least in part into a specific color. Tsukuru is the only member of the group whose name has no link to color and his friends jokingly refer to him as colorless Tsukuru – a fact that he interprets being lacking in some significant way. Tsukuru sees himself as ordinary and uninteresting and he is convinced that others see him this way too. When he is suddenly shunned from his close-knit group, his self-doubts are confirmed. What follows, is an exploration of why Tsukuru lost his friends and an examination of how he became the person he is at age thirty-eight.

No one does themes of isolation and alienation quite like Murakami. They are the themes that run through many of his books and, while he often leaves unanswered questions, he is an expert at eliciting an experiential connection with these themes. We, the readers, feel Tsukuru’s pain and confusion. The book is realistic in that there are no mystical talking cats or alternate worlds, but there is a dream-like quality to everything. In fact, dreams play a large role in the plot and are used  in similar ways that you might imagine come up in psychoanalysis.

I enjoyed the book although I felt like something was missing in translation. I think language was important here since many of the words had meaning in Japanese that could not adequately translate to English in the same way (the names translating into colors, the use of the honorifics in Japanese that don’t exist in English). I loved the use of color throughout the book and how it (or lack of) became a metaphor for Tsukuru’s own sense of alienation and isolation.

Although this book wasn’t quite like Murakami’s signature magical realist fare, it had his stamp all over it. There was the dream-like quality, the use of music, literary references, and bizarre sexual scenes for which his books are famous. This book was nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award (yes, there is such a thing). I’m surprised most his books don’t make it onto that list since I’ve often found sex in his books to very bizarre although consistent with the rest of his novels.

Music plays an important role and the novel could be considered to have a signature piece: Listz’s Le Mal du Pays. The title translates to homesickness. I listened to the piece while reading the novel and it was a perfect fit for the tone and emotion behind the book: hauntingly beautiful and melancholy. I tried to play this on the piano for the blog but was a little rusty (but I feel inspired to learn it). You can listen to exact rendition referenced in the book along with the sheet music here:

All in all I found Colorless… to be a very satisfying novel that I enjoyed very much. Murakami’s novels are very much about the experience of reading them and being taken down a number of paths than they are about a linear plot progression that gets you from A to B. His books are not for those that require all their knots to be tied. His books are filled with ambiguities and often end with little true resolution, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. This book was no exception. There is no neat ending and lots of questions remain unanswered. If you want to try it for yourself, you can find a copy here: Colorless Tsukuru.

We want to hear from you. Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t read it, do you think it is one that will appeal to you?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. JoLene #

    This is the first Murakami that I’ve read — almost exactly a year ago. I have to say I was a bit disappointed, but maybe because I had high expectations based on recommendations (of author, not this particular book).

    I don’t read much Japanese fiction, but I did feel that the interactions and relationships seemed very stilted — possibly a cultural thing, but it didn’t really draw me in. Although Tsukuru has low self esteem, it seems odd that he would have no curiosity at the time about why his friends dropped him. However, when it happens again when he is older with another friend, he still doesn’t try to figure out why.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 20, 2016
    • ah, but see that was the brilliance of how he draws you in experientially (in my opinion). Relationships are stilted and lack closeness precisely because Tsukuru feels a lack of connection with others. Even as part of the group, he felt like an other, like someone false with nothing to offer. His lack of curiosity was consistent with a believe that he would eventually be dropped by his friends – that they would see through him to his core that lacked color and significance. Of course as a reader it is quite disconcerting to placed into this context but I think your experience of the book was one that was created by the author intentionally.

      Liked by 2 people

      April 20, 2016
      • I loved this book. There was a wonderful stillness at its core, and it felt a very reflective work to me. I liked the themes of not knowing ourselves as much as not knowing others, that there are things about ourselves that are hidden, and we only come to realise them if we question our behaviour and how other people behave towards us. I loved that Sara pushed Tsukuru to step out of his natural pessimism and go on his pilgrimage in order to unlock himself as a person.

        Jen’s right about the awkwardness stemming from Tsukuru’s fatalism about himself, but I think JoLene is also right about there being a cultural aspect to the story that Western readers might miss. Japanese society, and how Japanese behave within it, is very different to Western society. If you’re interested in knowing why Japanese can be very reticent about questioning or challenging, I recommend Chie Nakane’s book Japanese Society. It’s a slim volume, but really interesting on how the Samurai social structure was imposed onto business and how this culture of respect and doing the right thing out of a sense of obligation bled out into personal relationships. It’s another factor in the lack of closeness among Tsukuru’s group of friends, along with Tsukuru’s reluctance to impose his weakness on the others by questioning them about their behaviour towards him. Two sweeping generalisations, I know, but we in the West love imposing on each other and getting up close and personal, but that kind of behaviour is anathema to Japanese folk!

        Liked by 2 people

        April 20, 2016
      • I’m glad you responded. I was going to refer the question to you but couldn’t figure out a way to tag you. I do agree that the relationships in his books are different than portrayed in western literature.

        Liked by 1 person

        April 20, 2016
      • JoLene #

        Thanks for more context regarding Japanese culture. I know that I had to have “cultural training” when I went to live in France for work. My direct task-oriented approach to work was not how the French worked. Very eye opening experience. I had one American friend that had to get a new job over there because she was in sales, but also a vegan. Going to dinners with clients was important but the French people couldn’t get over not eating cheese :-D.

        I agree Jen, that it was intentional and I definitely respect Murakami as a master of his craft; however, just as Tsukuru kept the world at arms length, it also kept this reader at arms length which isn’t were I prefer to be when reading (most of the time) 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        April 20, 2016
  2. Tracy S #

    Nicely reviewed! I just read this, too, and really liked it. Even if a lot was lost in translation, which I agree probably was, it still drew me in and was easy to relate to. I have way too many of Murakami’s books waiting on my shelf…I need to remedy that.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 20, 2016
    • I find the translation thing with Murakami really interesting. I read somewhere, can’t find it now, that he uses the three main ones, Rubin, Gabriel and Birnbaum, for his novels because he feels they come closest to the Japanese in feel when they translate. I prefer Jay Rubin’s translations – he seems to inhabit Murakami’s space best and possibly isn’t as literal as Philip Gabriel, whose translations I like less. I find him quite academic and dry sometimes, as though he’s trying to interpret the book for the reader rather than giving us the tools to interpret it ourselves. Rubin feels more intuitive to me, as though he’s not just translating Japanese words into English but also translating the implied meaning between and around the Japanese words into English as well. If that makes sense! One of the hardest things I find with learning Japanese is that what I read in a sentence is completely pedestrian compared with the rich meaning someone Japanese extracts from the words.

      Oh dear, I do rattle on about Murakami! 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      April 20, 2016
  3. great review. I also liked this book very much. I found his relationship to and passion for trains to be poignant and completely understandable from his POV. Loved the musical references too. I’ve worked for a Japanese company in the past which I think provided me with a bit of insight into the JP culture. the end of the book thrilled me.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 20, 2016
  4. Nice use of the music! I’d have to rank this one as one of my favorite Murakami’s but strangely Norwegian Wood is hands down my least favorite. I too find the sex scenes weirdly off-putting and have convinced myself that Murakami has a serious ear fetish.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 20, 2016
  5. Ive read only Norwegian Wood (loved it) and have been wondering whether to go searching for something else. problem being that I really don’t get on with magical realism. This books seems to be the answer

    Liked by 1 person

    May 9, 2016

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