Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

colorless I used to think that it was only Americans who were so caught up with the experience of  “High School.”  I had believed it was an American construct, an over-idealized rite of passage that had spawned too many bad television series and “coming of age” films. I had believed it was strictly an American thing.

I’ve known many men for whom those “high school” years were the very pinnacle of their lives. It is those days that they keep referring to, those days by which they measure all others.  I mean I know men in their 40s and 50s, in their 60s and 70s, even in their 80s whose conversation invariably turn to the high-jinks and glories of their high-school days.

But I was wrong.

Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage revolves around five Japanese high school friends and the long-lasting effects of the decisions they made when they were twenty years old.  They are now in their mid-thirties; two are living in their hometown, one has moved to far-away Finland, one to cosmopolitan Tokyo, and the fifth one is dead, murdered.  The one-time connectedness of these five high-school friends haunts the hero, Tsukuru Tazaki.

Tsukuru–whose name is the only one the five which does not have a color attached and who believes himself to be “colorless–was abruptly dropped from the group when he was a sophomore in college in Tokyo. And he never was given an explanation, just the order to never contact them again.  The separation caused Tsukuri months of suicidal depression and then years of self-doubt, wonder, and the inability to relate to people. For Tsukuru, the five high school friends were an unprecedented harmony of spirits.  And yet there were several cracks in this group which he was too nice to notice.

Tsukuru’s name in Japanese means “one who makes things,” and indeed, that’s what he does. He makes railroad stations.  And in Japan, railroad stations are a very big deal and making connections is an intrinsic part of Tokyo life. Yet his treatment by his high-school friends has left him unable to make connections with people. There have been several romantic liaisons, but nothing serious and nothing he wished to pursue further. There was a friendship–tinged with a touch of homo-eroticism–that ended as abruptly as his friendship with his high-school mates. He was simply abandoned one day, his friend moving away from Tokyo with no forewarning and no intention of staying in touch.

And so we follow “colorless” Tsukuru as he tries to make his way in the world.

I needed a novel like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. There had been too few novels lately that gripped me from the beginning and made me read obsessively until I was finished. And Murakami has done that for me before. While I can’t remember the exact plots of his Kafka on the Shore or NorwegianWood, I do remember the obsessiveness with which I read them.  I can remember jotting down notes, following up allusions, taking notes. I remember protagonists who were like Tsukuru Tazaki: thoughtful, introspective, aware young men, burdened by what they cannot change in the past and fearful of the uncertainties of the future. And I remember getting caught up in their sadness and their serious attempts to make sense of their world. Murakami’s novels are both thoughtful and fascinating, outwardly exotic and inwardly philosophic.

And also I remember the fascinating side-trips of information. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, there is an odd but brief discussion of the genetic dominance of a sixth finger; there is a continual look at the music of Listz, particularly the “Le Mal du Pays” section of his suite “The Years of Pilgrimage.”  It is a piece that the young murdered friend played often when they all were together, and it is a record that his friend Haida had coincidentally left at Tsukuru’s apartment before he had left him. Towards the end of the novel, Tsukuru visits one of his old high-school friends–still seeking enlightenment as to why he was so unceremoniously dropped–and the friend has the piece in her pile of CDs. The two reach some reconcilliation listening to Listz.

Watching the trains

Watching the trains

Watching the people

Watching the people


And then finally there is the subject of trains and of Tokyo’s public transportation. When Tsukuru needs time alone, when he is filled with angst and confusion, he goes to the train platforms and watches the trains and the people. There is a certain peace he finds in the uniformity and the precision which such a place exhibits, against what seems impossible odds. (Shinjuko Station handles 3.5 million passengers a day!)

I had skipped Marukami’s novel before this, 1Q84, for a variety of reasons. It was a mistake on my part and one I will rectify shortly.


You can listen to the very recording of Listz that Tsukura played on his stereo in his apartment here:


Book Review: The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzburo Oe

Kenzburo Oe

My knowledge of Japanese literature is very limited. I know a few poets–mainly ancient masters of the haiku–and I knew two novelists: Yukio Mishma, who many of my generation would know as the author of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea,  and the contemporary novelist Haruki Murakami, whose critically acclaimed novels such as Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles have been international best sellers as well.

Well this summer, I was introduced to a new one–Kenzaburo Oe.  (It is evidence of my ignorance that Kenzaburo Oe won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, but nevertheless unknown to me.)  I was introduced to him by a wonderful writer, reader, traveler and photographer who writes the erroneously named blog francescannotwrite and who spoke about picking up the novel in Geneva last year, having known nothing about it or the author either. Her comments on it stressed the intelligence of Oe and her fascination with the plot.  And it sent me searching for it.

She was right on both accounts.

The Changeling tells the story of an aging writer Kogito whose boy-hood friend is now his brother-in-law and a giant in the Japanese film industry. The brother-in-law, Goro, had once sent Kogito a tape-deck with a collections of tapes that he had made. These first tapes were of overheard (and recorded) conversations, eavesdropped moments, unsettling sounds that Goro collected to help Kogito put out of mind the vindictive journalist who has been hounding him.  Fifteen years later, Goro sent him a new collection of tapes, tapes that were, in his voice,  lectures, rants, philosophical  queries, friendly advice and mentoring, and most importantly–the announcement of his suicide.

Book cover for The Changeling

Book cover for The Changeling

In fact, it is on an early tape that Kogito learns of his friend’s death:

“So anyway, that’s it for today–I’m going to head over to the Other Side now,” Goro said casually. …”But don’t worry,” Goro went on, “I’m not going to stop communicating with you.”

And the rest of the tapes are Goro’s communication–from the Other Side. Each night Kogito listens, pauses the tapes, responds, pushes play again, responds again. In fact, each night after Goro’s death, Kogito has full-out conversations with his dead friend. Conversations that are filled with intelligence, logic, debate and argument and that are seeped in a great deal of memory.

After a while, Kogito’s wife–and Goro’s sister–asks him to stop. His loud conversations are upsetting both her and their disabled son.

Kogito does stop and accepts a guest teaching spot in Berlin. But Goro speaks to him in other ways there as well. There is a mysterious woman who claims to have known him, claims to know the real reason for Goro’s suicide. (The Japanese tabloids have been running with a scandalous story.)  But most importantly there are Kogito’s memories, which, alone in Berlin, he can recount, examine and analyze with much greater attention to detail.  Memories of Goro’s life, of his own, and of the two’s together.

We learn that Goro had been attacked and badly beaten by the henchman of Japanese organized crime (he had made an unflattering film about them), but then we learn that the left-leaning Kogito had years earlier been attacked  several times by right-wing groups. Goro’s attack made international news and he is fighting the thugs in court; Kogito never reported his assaults.

We also learn a disturbing secret of the two men’s shared childhood.  A secret that–when faced–shines much light on Kogito’s memories and the inward journey that Goro’s suicide precipitated.

Frances, of “francescannotwrite” mentions the intelligence with which the novel is imbued. And she is right.  The conversations between Goro and Kogito, one dead and one alive, are heady and range from art and politics to society and life, from French literature and Japanese gangsterism to the War and their childhoods.  In his tapes, Goro seems–from “the Other Side”–to be pushing his friend to a clarity that his life requires.

And it is a wonderful read. Like the art of Hokusai, where there are minimal lines but great power, Oe’s story is rich and dense and intelligent but it never feels that those things are in the foreground. The power is there in the conversations, the allusions, the references, but In the foreground is the fascinating history of Kogito and his dead friend.

It is a memorable story and a memorable novel.  So now, I need to find some others.