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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Knopf, 400 pages, $25.95

This is NOT a mystery. (Except in the sense that its purpose is mysterious for 99.9% of the book.) There is a murder in it, but it is so NOT the focal point of the book.

Briefly, then, Tsukuru Tazaki is colorless because his four best friends in high school each have a color in their name. They become Red, Blue, Black, and White to each other. Tsukuru means builder, and he feels he is the odd-man out. Five best friends, a little off balance. Tsukuru is the only one to leave Nagoya for college in Tokyo. He feels he has left the womb and can’t wait to return during breaks.

During his sophomore year, when Tsukuru returns for a visit, his friends inexplicably refuse to see him or speak to him. Completely at sea, Tsukuru returns to Tokyo and a lonely existence. Over the years (the story picks up when Tsukuru is 36 years old), he has found nothing even close to replacing them.

Tsukuru designs, fixes, and admires train stations. He compulsively watches trains come and go, but he is not a traveler. His world is small and hurting.

A potentially serious girlfriend tells Tsukuru that it has been long enough; he must become visible (colorful) to the world and the world must become visible to him again by finding out why his friends shunned him 16 years ago. And that’s the book. 

The only other Haruki Murakami book I read, “Kafka on the Shore,” led me to believe that “Colorless” would be a different sort of book, one that perhaps featured an alternate reality, strange visions, or, at the very least, talking cats. It was a disadvantage to anticipate in that way, even though there were moments when Murakami might have slipped into another world, because his story was about self-definition. Do we need other people to define us? Can we be strong enough to exist clearly in our own minds?

Murakami takes us on a journey with Tsukuru into the psychology of friendship and ego. It is compelling. Even Murakami’s little asides — for example, about birds and helicopters — prove useful in understanding Tsukuru’s ego.

Not a book for everyone, but certainly rewarding if it hits you right.

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