My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013) blends itself well into the other twelve books by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who happened to lose the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan (aka, Robert Allen Zimmerman).
From the beginning of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the reader is pulled into the story of a loner and social outcast with a young man named Tsukuru Tazaki who has no color in the meaning of his name unlike his close friends which form the bond that binds the plot through twenty years of unspoken regret and hidden lies:
“And aside from Tsukuru Tazaki, they had another small coincidental point in common: their last names all contained a color. The two boys’ last names were Akamatsu – which means ‘red pine’ – and Oumi – ‘blue sea’; the girls’ family names were Shirane – ‘white root’ – and Kurono – ‘black field.’ Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this fact made him feel a little bit left out. Of course, whether or not you had a color as part of your name had nothing to do with your personality. Tsukuru understood this. But still, it disappointed him, and he surprised himself by feeling hurt. Soon, the other four friends began to use nicknames: the boys were called Aka (red) and Ao (blue); and the girls were Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). But he just remained Tsukuru. How great it would be, he often thought, if I had a color in my name too. Then everything would be perfect.
“Aka was the one with the best grades. He never seemed to study hard, yet was at the top of his class in every subject… Ao was impressively built, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest, as well as a broad forehead, a generous mouth, and an imposing nose. He was a forward on the rugby team, and in his senior year he was elected team captain…
“Shiro was tall and slim, with a model’s body and the graceful features of a traditional Japanese doll. Her long hair was a silky, lustrous black. Most people who passed her on the street would turn around for a second look, but she seemed to find her beauty embarrassing…
“Kuro wasn’t beautiful, but she was eager and charming and always curious. She was large-boned and full-bodied, and already had a well-developed bust by the time she was sixteen” (pgs 6-9).
To understand these initial traits, albeit void of brevity, is vital to understanding the group dynamics which not only brought these five individuals closer at the end of their high school years but would also silently create a catastrophe among these three boys and two girls as they entered university and the real world. If Tsukuru had a color, gray would have suited him well. He was always on the edge, an outsider. Timid and alone.
Fast forward into the future, Tsukuru is in this mid-thirties and dating a woman who hopes for more, but something from his past tugs at his soul which haunts him to the point of causing relationship after relationship to be doomed to failure. For him, life is not spectacular but routine and mundane. Gray and boring.
Tsukuru hasn’t spoken to his four, colorful friends since soon after he entered university, and all through his young adulthood and adulthood he never knew why his close-knit group shunned him and ostracized him. Perhaps, he thought, leaving his small village town to enter university in Tokyo was one of the main reasons. And this mystery follows him like a raincloud over his shoulder and dooms his life to mediocrity.
With flashbacks, the reader learns Tsukuru had sexual desires for his two female friends, and one wonders if this could’ve been the reason why Tsukuru was kicked out of the group all those years ago. His girlfriend, Sara, in the present has her suspicions as well.
“How much of this is real? he wondered. This wasn’t a dream, or an illusion. It had to be real. But it lacked the weight you’d expect from reality.
“Tsukuru must have fallen asleep again, but he woke up once more in a dream Strictly speaking, it might not be a dream. It was reality, but a reality imbued with all the qualities of a dream. A different sphere of reality, where—at a special time and place—imagination had been set free.
“The girls were in bed, as naked as the day they were born, snuggled up close on either side of him. Shiro and Kuro. They were sixteen or seventeen, invariably that age. Their breasts and thighs were pressed against him, their bodies smooth and warm, and Tsukuru could feel all this, clearly. Silently, greedily, they groped his body with their fingers and tongues. He was naked too.
“This was not something Tsukuru was hoping for, not a scenario he wanted to imagine. It wasn’t something that should be happening. But that image, against his will, grew more vivid, the feelings more graphic, more real.
“The girls’ fingers were gentle, slender, and delicate. Four hands, twenty fingers. Like some smooth, sightless creatures born in the darkness, they wandered over every inch of Tsukuru’s body, arousing him completely. He felt his heart stir, intensely, in a way he’d never before experienced, as if he’d been living for a long time in a house only to discover a secret room he’d never known about. Like a kettledrum, his heart trembled, pounding out an audible beat. His arms and legs were still numb, and he couldn’t lift a finger.
“The girls entwined themselves lithely around Tsukuru. Kuro’s breasts were full and soft. Shiro’s were small, but her nipples were as hard as tiny round pebbles. Their pubic hair was wet as a rain forest. Their breath mingled with his, becoming one, like currents from far away, secretly overlapping at the dark bottom of the sea” (pgs 94-95).
This feeling of helplessness within the context of sexuality on the fringes of rape backgrounds the themes of this book and interweaves Tsukuru’s story heedlessly and expertly. Is Tsukuru a victim? Or has he raped one of the girls and his mind shut the tragic experience out? What happened to cause the group to splinter and reject Tsukuru, nearly causing him to die? The reader asks these questions and many more as Murakami blends the real and unreal into one, as he so often does with effortless ease.
Then Murakami drops a bomb on the reader and the themes of this book when Tsukuru is in university, now excluded from the group of high school friends. Tsukuru befriends a young man by the name of Haida who happens to be a loner as well and who happens to love coffee and classical music.
The two quickly become swimming buddies and have sleep overs where Haida would make and share his special coffee with Tsukuru. And the reader asks, as Tsukuru asks himself: was the coffee drugged? Was Tsukuru raped by Haida, his male friend? Or was it all a dream, much like the dreams he had about Shiro and Kuro?
“Beyond that, he couldn’t think. Shiro’s movements grew faster, more pronounced. And before he knew it, he was coming inside her. The time elapsed between penetration and orgasm was short. Too short, Tsukuru thought, way too short. But maybe he’d lost any sense of time. At any rate, the urge was unstoppable, and, like a huge wave crashing over him, this urge engulfed him without warning.
“Now, though, he wasn’t coming inside Shiro, but in Haida. The girls suddenly disappeared, and Haida had taken their place. Just as Tsukuru came, Haida had quickly bent over, taken Tsukuru’s penis in his mouth, and—careful not to get the sheets dirty—taken all the gushing semen inside his mouth. Tsukuru came violently, the semen copious. Haida patiently accepted all of it, and when Tsukuru had finished, Haida licked his penis clean with his tongue. He seemed used to it. At least it felt that way. Haida quietly rose from the bed and went to the bathroom. Tsukuru heard water running from the faucet. Haida was probably rinsing his mouth.
“Even after he came, Tsukuru’s penis remained erect. He could feel the warmth and softness of Shiro’s vagina, as if it were the afterglow of actual sex. And he still couldn’t grasp the boundary between dream and imagination, between what was imaginary and what was real” (pg 96).
And neither does the reader. Murakami has cast his spell once again and the themes of the book consider the serious implications of rape, even within the often taboo subject of homosexuality.
Tsukuru is left friendless once more when Haida and he never speak again because of a silent barrier having risen between them after that night. After that dream? After that sexual encounter? Tsukuru, like the reader, questions Tsukuru’s reality.
“Maybe I am fated to always be alone, Tsukuru found himself thinking. People came to him, but in the end they always left. They came, seeking something, but either they couldn’t find it, or were unhappy with what they found (or else they were disappointed or angry), and then they left. One day, without warning, they vanished, with no explanation, no word of farewell. Like a silent hatchet had sliced the ties between them, ties through which warm blood still flowed, along with a quiet pulse… ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki,’ he said aloud. I basically have nothing to offer to others. If you think about it, I don’t even have anything to offer myself” (pgs 100-101).
As for what happened between the high school classmates and Tsukuru (in the past) or what happens between Sara and Tsukuru (in the present), you will just have to be a little patient and read this book.
But I will share a little secret with you about the title: “His Years of Pilgrimage” refers to the name of an album consisting of three piano solos called “Years of Pilgrimage” by Franz Liszt. One song, “Le Mal du Pays” (translated simply as: “Homesickness”) Tsukuru loved to listen to with Haida on lonely, rainy nights as they both sipped coffee together.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 375,000+ followers