In considering the life and work of Haruki Murakami it’s good to keep a sharp eye on the relationship between individual and community, on questions of inclusion and exclusion, belonging and abandonment. Grandson of a Buddhist monk, his father a teacher of Japanese literature, Murakami has made a point of writing outside the Japanese tradition, against it almost, drawing to a large extent on tropes, images, and cultural references from Western literature, classical music, and pop culture. In this respect he has been praised for, but also accused of, pioneering a new global literature whose stories, whether real, surreal, or “magical,” are not radically located in any place or culture precisely in order to appeal to a worldwide audience.
Murakami denies this. While admitting that as a child he “wanted to escape from [Japanese] culture; I felt it was boring. Too sticky,” he also insists, “I don’t want to write about foreigners in foreign countries; I want to write about us. I want to write about Japan, about our life here. That’s important to me. Many people say that my style is accessible to Westerners; it might be true, but my stories are my own, and they are not Westernized.”
So for Murakami his rejection of traditional culture has meaning primarily within the setting of Japan; any international payoff is coincidental. However, a writer in conflict with his own culture and sympathetic to material that circulates internationally is bound to appeal to those in other countries who see themselves in similar positions. The appeal is all the stronger in Murakami’s case thanks to a fluid prose style that remains syntactically and lexically straightforward, however strange the content. Translation may not be easy, but it is certainly possible.
In interviews Murakami insists on being an outsider: “I’m a loner. I don’t like groups, schools, literary circles.” In each novel, he says, he wants his main character to be “an independent, absolute individual…a type of man who chooses freedom and solitude over intimacy and personal bonds.” On the other hand, from 1974 to 1981 Murakami and his wife ran a coffeehouse and jazz bar, as does his hero in South of the Border West of the Sun. So this is by no means a man averse to community, on his own terms. “I made the cocktails and I made the sandwiches,” he tells us. “I didn’t want to become a writer—it just happened. It’s a kind of gift, you know, from the heavens. So I think I should be very humble.”
With the same kind of humility Murakami insists that “I’m just like the people who read my books.” Thus if one culture and community is abandoned because it is “sticky,” another is nevertheless formed: the clients in the jazz club, the readers of his fiction; it’s a more fluid, casual culture, but also one where Murakami himself is now controlling rather than compliant, thanks to that gift from above. Talking about the phenomenal worldwide success of his writing, he remarks: “It’s incredible. I write a novel every three or four years, and people are waiting for it. I once interviewed John Irving, and he told me that reading a good book is a mainline. Once they are addicted, they’re always waiting.” This begins to sound like another form of stickiness, perhaps as much for the pusher as the addict. But no doubt any community requires some kind of glue.
Becoming a loner has its price. Within a family, a community, one has a position in relation to others and life has a visible drama, tragic or comic, that makes sense inside the dominant culture. To fall outside that network of relationships or deliberately withdraw from it is to be thrown entirely onto one’s own resources, to become prey to bizarre thought processes, dreams, hallucinations, perhaps to sink into a deep well of depression. Wells are a recurring image in Murakami’s work, holes one falls down, but also bubbling with strange psychic life.
To survive one must become strong. “You’ve got to be the world’s toughest 15-year old,” the young hero of Kafka on the Shore is told as he prepares to abandon his father’s home. In many of Murakami’s novels the main character will find himself torn between two women, one tormented and “spiritual,” drawing him into a rich but potentially fatal alternative world, the other easy-going, practical, with a sense of humor, and ready to give him not just sex, but a traditional family, even a tribe: “I’d make a pile of babies for you as tough as little bulls. And we’d all live happily ever after, rolling on the floor,” says Midori in Norwegian Wood.
It sounds attractive. But any reconstitution of family and community will involve loss. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, we hear that in order to join a certain walled community, would-be residents are obliged to leave their shadows outside; they cannot keep their intimate individuality if they wish to join the group. “The protagonist’s mind,” Murakami comments, “is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take.” The author himself has no children and is on record as saying he couldn’t imagine himself as a father.
In the event, the pattern of the novels is that the hero chooses first one woman and then the other, as indeed Murakami’s writing itself has oscillated between an extravagant surrealism outside the mainstream and a straightforward lyrical realism that appeals directly and easily to the broadest of publics. However, each novel contains elements of both approaches, the lead character shuttling back and forth between the two sides, before returning, or preparing to return, to some more recognizably traditional community. Thus after the many bizarre adventures that do indeed make the young Kafka (a Japanese boy, it should be stressed) “the toughest 15-year-old in the world,” he nevertheless sets out for home as the story closes. For all the surreal adventure of the loner’s alternative world, it is the world we are familiar with that reassuringly reasserts its dominance. In that sense these stories are perhaps less revolutionary than they might seem.
Now, aged sixty-five, and with the expectations of a huge community of fans weighing on him, Murakami has reached a point in his career when it would be all too easy to sink into mannerism. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage attempts to avoid that trap by reformulating the author’s familiar tropes in the realism of a spare third-person voice describing a character who, rather than abandoning a world he is dissatisfied with, finds himself brutally and inexplicably thrust out of the happiness of peer group friendship into a pit of lonely depression. The opening lays it on thick.
“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.” Looking back on events sixteen years after this low point (a narrative strategy that recalls the opening of Norwegian Wood), Tsukuru remembers himself “teetering over the precipice”; he was “Jonah in the belly of the whale,” “a person in a storm desperately grasping at a lamppost,” a man confronting “a huge, dark abyss that ran straight through to the earth’s core.”
The immediate cause of his distress is clear enough. In his adolescence Tsukuru had been one of a group of five friends, three boys and two girls, who had come together when they volunteered to tutor underperforming elementary school children. They were acting positively, for the benefit of the larger community, and they formed a tight and ideal community themselves, indeed a “unique sense of harmony developed between them—each one needed the other four and, in turn, shared the sense that they too were needed.” They were “a perfect combination…. Like five fingers.” Sticky fingers, one might say.
Not that there weren’t some troubling aspects to this idyll. While the other four members of the group each possessed some remarkable talent—one boy intellectually brilliant, another a fine athlete, one girl a beautiful pianist, the other rumbustiously comic—Tsukuru himself did not have “anything special about him.” He thus developed an uneasy feeling that he might be inadequate, unworthy of the community, something rubbed in by his friends when they pointed out that while all their names included colors—white, black, red, and blue—he was “colorless,” his name simply meant “maker.” Right from the start Tsukuru’s ambition was to build railway stations, places through which communities mix and move, not places where they stay still. Of the girls in the group, however, Tsukuru felt attracted not to the jolly and practical Kuro, but to the beautiful, rather spiritual Shiro, the pianist, who looked, rather ominously, like “a traditional Japanese doll.” Fragile and static.
Some readers will find these heavily loaded schemes wearisome, but they do allow Murakami to frame his debate with dispatch.
Tsukuru’s railway building ambitions took him away from their hometown of Nagoya to university in Tokyo while the others stayed put. For a year or so all was well and the old friendships easily picked up when he returned on vacation, the group attempting to maintain their “orderly, harmonious community” with a number of “unspoken rules,” mainly to “keep relations with the opposite sex out.” In short, the original goal of helping the wider community had now given way to the new one of “maintaining the group itself.” Nothing must change.
However, returning for a second summer vacation, Tsukuru found that his friends had cut him off, irrevocably. They refused to answer the phone, refused to see him, and offered no explanation for their behavior. “Tsukuru was left feeling like an outcast, as if he were carrying some virulent pathogen that the others were desperately trying to avoid.” His family, to whom he wasn’t close, was unable to offer any consolation, nor did he have any other friends to fall back on. For the next sixteen years, despite professional success and the occasional casual relationship, his emotional life would be as if frozen. He had been pushed off the deck of a ship to “swim alone through the cold night sea.” The pilgrimage of the title is his sixteen-year crossing of that sea.
Unusually for Murakami there is no humor or irony in this novel, nor are any of the main events dramatized. Everything is solemn and mesmerizingly slow, the similes and metaphors invariably portentous. Essentially, life throws up helpers of one kind or another who encourage Tsukuru to understand that he has a problem and to solve it. As the novel opens, he meets Sara, the first woman he has been deeply attracted to for many years. This attraction is declared in one of those mysterious moments typical of Murakami’s fiction:
He wasn’t normally conscious of it, but there was one part of his body that was extremely sensitive, somewhere along his back. This soft, subtle spot he couldn’t reach was usually covered by something, so that it was invisible to the naked eye. But when, for whatever reason, that spot became exposed and someone’s finger pressed down on it, something inside him would stir. A special substance would be secreted, swiftly carried by his bloodstream to every corner of his body. That special stimulus was both a physical sensation and a mental one, creating vivid images in his mind.
The first time he met Sara, he felt an anonymous finger reach out and push down forcefully on that trigger on his back. The day they met they talked for a long time, though he couldn’t recall much of what they said. What he did recall was the special feeling on his back, and the indefinably thrilling sensation it brought to his mind and body. One part of him relaxed, another part tightened up. That sort of feeling. But what did it mean? Tsukuru thought about this for days, but he was not, by nature, adept at abstract thinking. So Tsukuru emailed Sara and invited her to dinner. He was determined to find out the meaning of that feeling, of that sensation.
How strange all this is: a spot on the back, invisible because covered, like most of the back, and presumably not marked in any way even when uncovered; an anonymous finger (do fingers usually have names? are they usually disembodied?) that pushes down on the spot (despite the fact that it presumably remains covered and invisible); a man who spends some days trying to decide what the consequent feelings might mean, then invites a girl to dinner not because he likes her but because he’s puzzled.
Whatever it “means,” the function of the “feeling” in the story is that it substitutes for any dramatization of their courtship. Neither Tsukuru’s “subtle spot” nor his special sensation will be mentioned again, but the two do make it to bed:
Leisurely foreplay, caressing her, had been amazing, and after he came, he had felt at peace as he held her close. But that wasn’t all there was to it. He was well aware that there was something more. Making love was a joining, a connection between one person and another. You receive something, and you also have to give.
In the novel’s scheme—and there is little outside the scheme—Tsukuru is being invited out of his isolation, but as Sara soon understands, he is incapable of giving. Something holds him back. Having got out of him the story of his earlier abandonment, she tells him they cannot have a serious relationship until he sorts out what happened in the past. Sara works as a travel agent. She is another facilitator of movement. She checks up on his old friends, finds their professions and addresses, and more or less orders Tsukuru to go see them, getting his tickets for him. The two men are still in Nagoya. The practical girl is married in Finland. The spiritual girl is long dead. The novel will be Tsukuru’s search for closure with this past community that rejected him, in order to open up a new life with Sara.
Before that can happen, however, we are offered a bizarre key with which to read the story. Tsukuru, who symbolically is swimming through a dark sea, actually swims every day in the pool, 1,500 meters, the same distance that Murakami says he swims on the days he doesn’t run 10 kilometers (endurance sports are part of the loner’s survival kit). The year after his friends abandon him he meets a man in the pool, Haida, who becomes his friend and whom he follows so closely in the water that he is constantly focused on his feet. Haida, who is younger than Tsukuru and whose name means “gray field,” likes cooking and brings CDs to play in Tsukuru’s apartment, including a performance of Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (Homesickness), which happens to be one of the pieces the talented Shiro always played. No Murakami novel is complete without its theme tune, and it has to be said that this is a wonderfully melancholy piece to convey Tsukuru’s nostalgia for the lost friendships of the past.
One night Haida tells his friend a long story that involves piano playing. In the late 1960s, his father, disgusted with the student protest movement, withdrew from the university and wandered around Japan. Another loner. In a remote spa town he met a man who claimed to be a jazz pianist and one day played for him, placing on top of the piano a bag with “a strange story behind it” that he refused to tell, saying only that its contents were a kind of “alter ego.” This man went on to tell Haida’s father that he was shortly to die, having accepted that his life be limited in return for special spiritual powers. “Each individual has their own unique color, which shines faintly around the contours of their body”; the pianist can see those colors. If he wished to avoid death he could pass on this power to someone with a certain aura, and Haida’s father is such a person. But after experiencing this “omniscient view of the world” the man has no desire to extend his life if living means returning to the “shallow and superficial” past.
Within Murakami’s vision the drift is clear enough. The person abandoning community is drawn toward artistic expression and spiritual awareness, guru status almost, but this can also lure him to death, the final exclusion. It may be that Tsukuru is one of the special people who could take this path, or, since he is colorless, maybe not. But what was in the cloth bag on top of the piano? Later, hearing of two embalmed fingers left in a railway station, Tsukuru discovers that some people are born with six fingers on each hand and have the two extra fingers amputated in order to appear no different from the crowd. He imagines the pianist preserved his two amputated sixth fingers, his specialness as it were, in this bag.
The night after he hears the story, Tsukuru dreams he is making love to Shiro and Kuro, the girls in his old group, but then has an orgasm in his friend Haida’s mouth. Shortly afterward, Haida disappears, never to return, and Tsukuru rather improbably has no way of getting in touch with him. Again he has been abandoned, this time by the man leading him through the water. Because he was unworthy in some way? Did Haida know about his dream? Or was Haida some kind of emissary whose role had been fulfilled? We will never know. But this is how Murakami’s novels work: an essentially realist story, Tsukuru’s abandonment and consequent depression are made intriguing not through a close-up presentation of the characters and their interaction, but by running them alongside mysteriously symbolic tales that invite elaborate interpretations. Readers are reassured that everything is extremely meaningful, if only we could understand it.
When Tsukuru finally goes to find his old friends, the “real” story is more intriguing than the dreams and fables. Shiro, the beautiful piano player, had told the others that on a trip to Tokyo Tsukuru raped her. She was so distraught that though the others didn’t exactly believe her, they agreed to exclude Tsukuru from the group to protect her fragile mental health. To an extent, for the usually cheerful Kuro, who had been in love with Tsukuru, this was a punishment for his preferring the other girl, and for the two boys there was an element of revenge for Tsukuru’s upstaging them by moving to Tokyo. Ten years later, after moving alone to a distant town, Shiro was strangled. She wasn’t tough enough to survive as a loner. The murderer was never found. Needless to say, Tsukuru begins to worry that in some strange alternative world he may in fact have raped and murdered Shiro.
The details of what happened to Shiro are not pursued, nor are the relationships inside the group. Instead each of the old friends is carefully placed in relation to a wider community. We learn that the athlete, Ao, has become a car salesman, a solid conventional figure. Ako, the intellectual, finding he couldn’t fit in anywhere, because capitalism requires mediocrities who must surrender their individual uniqueness to the corporate cause, has set up a company that trains employees to become precisely the unthinking nobodies their bosses want, something he is perhaps doing “to get personal revenge on society.” Ako speaks bitterly of his coming out as a homosexual and explains that he too felt he had been “thrown overboard, alone, into the ocean.” Everything is seen in relation to inclusion or exclusion from peer groups, perhaps a very Japanese concern.
The most sentimental encounter is with Kuro, the girl with the sense of humor, who, having sacrificed many years to being the minder of the deeply disturbed Shiro, finally became a potter, married a Finnish potter, and lives happily with two children in Finland. She and Tsukuru listen to “Le mal du pays” together and reflect that Shiro “lives on in so many ways.” At this point, the albatross finally falls from Tsukuru’s neck:
He was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.
In short, the breakup of community eventually allows for a deeper connection through shared suffering. The world is painful, but pain has its sweet side, “not everything was lost in the flow of time.” Having now concluded his pilgrimage, it remains for Tsukuru to find out whether Sara, who we have since discovered is also seeing another boyfriend, will choose him or the other. If she chooses the other, Tsukuru thinks:
I may really die. Die in reality, or die figuratively—there isn’t much difference between the two. But this time I definitely will take my last breath. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki will lose any last hint of color and quietly exit the world. All will become a void, the only thing that remains a hard, frozen clump of dirt.
Hearing this drastic declaration, one is obliged to wonder how much progress the pilgrim Tsukuru has really made. He is thirty-six. He has only seen the girl four or five times and anyway she always had another man. He has just usefully reconnected with a group of old friends. Some counseling seems in order.
Bookshops all over the world were opened at midnight to celebrate the publication of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. In the United States the initial print run of 250,000 copies shows remarkable confidence in Murakami’s appeal. In essence, the novel offers an intriguing core story of how an adolescent idyll went badly wrong. The main purpose of the narrative, however, is not to have that story unfold in all its complexity, but to linger over the pathos and resilience of the victim, offer some suggestively surreal backdrop to complicate matters (some readers will think, “Wow”), and mull at length, sometimes interestingly, in dialogues whose tone is solemnly static throughout, on the elusive relationship between individual and community, the strength needed to live alone, and the dangers of seeking to preserve a group by curbing the vital instincts of its members. This focus on the claims of the individual, the quiet heroism of the loner, together with Murakami’s considerable narrative facility and powerful imagination, may go some way to explain his appeal. In the end this is the story of a woefully prolonged adolescence.
There is talk of the Nobel.