When we look at our lives in hindsight, we tend to see the events as having fallen into place, like puzzle pieces naturally forming their way into the bigger picture—except that’s not how puzzles work. Puzzles take time, effort, and thought—much like how our lives are shaped by the decisions that we mull over and stress about. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “A thought, even a possibility, can shatter and transform us.” For many authors, such as Haruki Murakami, those possibilities can take over a larger portion of our conscious reality than the events that formed it. He skillfully builds a world where this power of the possible is noticeable, but still exhibits his well-known talent of subduing major shifts in realism.
The newest addition to his oddly approachable repertoire, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, wrestles with this mingling of life and alternate reality. Through his protagonist Tsukuru Tazaki, he explores his signature subtly fantastical world, similar to those of his other novels, but this time as an introspective man who finds ways of coping with his pallid life.
“Gray is a mixture of white and black. Change its shade, and it can easily melt into various gradations of darkness.”
Enter Tsukuru, a young man raised by a wealthy family, including a withdrawn dad and a caring mom. He grows up in the suburbs of Japan, and his teenage years depict the path many of us took on our way to Georgetown: as a student at a public high school he gets involved with a program that fills up his summer vacation with volunteer work at an elementary school. There he meets four friends, all coincidentally with names that include a color. His vibrant friends contrast with his self-proclaimed dull, middling self, causing him to feel like the leprechaun who only tends to the seamless rainbow. But Tsukuru, which means “to make” in Japanese, is no misnomer as he unknowingly acts as an essential component in their tight-knit group.
The group grows through high school together and despite their very different personalities, the friends harmoniously evolve. Leaving their hometown is almost inconceivable for the carefree friends. But eventually, Tsukuru realizes his deep love for railroads and leaves for engineering school in Tokyo, his overall social ostracization ultimately providing the leverage necessary to leave his hometown and four friends behind.
“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.”
As an engineering student in Tokyo, he regularly visits his hometown, Nagoya, and each visit the friend group faithfully reverts to its warm, balanced intimacy. Tsukuru finds comfort in this and doesn’t attempt to break out of his introversion at university. Thus begins a downward spiral when a quick change of events leaves him friendless and insecure, in a deep pit of depressed isolation, illustrating that not breaking out of your comfort zone when you enter college is a bad idea (I’m talking to you, freshmen).
After the sudden change in circumstances, Tsukuru climbs out of his dark hole, luckily meeting two important helpers along the way. The first is Haida, another colorful young man whose name literally means “ash field.” Tsukuru finds great comfort in swimming laps, listening to classical music, and musing about abstract ideas with him. The second is Sara, his attractive, quick-witted love interest. His desire for Sara and her dedication to him is powerful enough to compel him to finally seek answers 16 years after “the wound was gouged.”
“Everything has boundaries. The same holds true with thoughts. You shouldn’t fear boundaries, but you should not be afraid of destroying them. That’s what is most important if you want to be free…”
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes on a compact form of Murakami’s magic. It has the elements of his better-known novels with fewer soul-crushing events. I sense that this slightly pared dose of his imagination hints at the more daring side of Murakami and I want to know more. As he puts is, “My imagination is a kind of animal. So what I do is keep it alive.”