By Haruku Murakami
Haruki Murakami is one of the world's best-known and best-loved authors. After reading his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, one of the reasons why this could be is because his work often explores a character who is not known by many and loved, or even highly regarded, by fewer still.
It's not that the characters are unlovable, let alone monsters, but that they are quiet, unassuming, seeking ways to avoid calling attention to themselves. But within those quiet characters are loudly beating hearts. And the world is filled with people like this.
Tsukuru, whose name means "grey" spelled one way and "someone who makes things" when spelled another way, once was part of a tightly knit group of friends. He and the four others went through high school together as if they were one, like points on a star that stay in balance. The two girls and two other boys in the group all have names that mean colors. Tsukuru feels thrilled that they include him. When it's time for university, Tsukuru is the only one who lives their city. He and his friends fall into their old routine whenever he's home on holidays. Until one visit, when all of them refuse to see him or talk to him. No one will tell him why.
Returning to university, Tsukuru wishes he could die. He feels dead inside. It's months before he climbs out of his sorrow, goes on to earn his engineering degree and remains in Tokyo. His job is something he likes, engineering changes to railway stations to improve them or accommodate changes. It's not exciting but it is useful.
He had one good friend at college who told him a strange story passed on from his father and who, later that same night, is part of a strange dream Tsukuru has involving the two girls. It's either a dream or, considering this is a Murakami novel, a slip into another dimension in which people meet when they are separated in space and time. It's something that's occurred in other Murakami novels, such as Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84 and After Dark. The encounters often lead people to a feeling of closeness or, in this case, to another level of something Tsukuru had not felt or acknowledged how he felt about the girls. It disturbs him, and disturbs him even more when his college friend suddenly becomes part of the scenario.
The story that his friend tells him fits within the overall narrative the way a fairy tale or legend is told, in the dark hours of the night when the story takes on a greater emphasis than it would have if told in daylight. His friend's father ends up as a handyman at a remote mountain resort, pleased to pass the time fixing things and enjoying the scenery. A jazz pianist comes to the resort and eventually recounts a strange story, insinuating that the sack he carries and carefully puts on top of the piano before he ever plays is a burden. It is a burden that can be passed on to another and which involves death. He insinuates that the handyman could voluntarily become the new carrier of the burden. And then the pianist is gone the next day.
It is pure Murakami that he throws in a bit of magical realism to reinforce the idea that it exists in this world, even though it is not visible to many. This idea comes into play later in the book, when Tsukuru speaks to someone he has not seen in years. Both of them have the sense that, even though they were not at a location where someone else encountered danger, they were somehow there and somehow responsible.
In his late 30s, the unattached Tsukuru meets a woman who may be the one for him. It's a quiet relationship. Before it gets deeper, she warns Tsukuru that he hasn't gotten over his past. He needs to resolve the hurt that he suffered when his friends cut him off.
The rest of the novel is paced as one expects in a Murakami work - unhurried, prose matter-of-fact, revelations expressed as quietly as commonplace greetings. There is a melancholy that pervades the acceptance of growing old, of realizing that one may have found one's place in life and that the past cannot be the present or become the future.
But there also is the sense that the more a person can believe in the truth of something, the more alive that person feels:
We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something -- with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.
It is this kind of realization that helps Tsukuru decide the value of his lifelong journey, and the next step he wants to take. It also helps him realize that he has to allow others the same privilege and await their decision. While 1Q84 was the kind of story in which young hearts seek each other, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the kind of story in which young hearts mature but do not give up their search.
©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission