Limits to Knowing

September 7, 2014   •   By Bryan Hurt

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS you’ll hear about Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is that it went through eight printings the first week it was released in Japan, where fans camped out overnight to be among the first to buy the book. In fact, if you happen to have received a review copy of the book — spirited onto your Kindle app, let’s say, by Amazon’s patented Whispernet® because the American publisher ran out of physical copies to send to you — this is the first thing you’ll read: “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage […] sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan.” In other words this book is a BIG DEAL. I can’t blame the publicists at Knopf for wanting to brag. Any new book by Haruki Murakami — a perennial odds on favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature — is a big deal, and Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage, Murakami’s thirteenth novel, deserves every bit of fanfare.

Murakami’s previous offering, the epic 1Q84, was quite literally a BIG BOOK. Weighing in at 925 pages, it was packed with the kind of phantasmagoria we’ve come to expect from one of our most innovative and imaginative writers. The novel featured a Tokyo with two moons, creatures that emerge from a dead goat’s mouth, and, on the more realistic side, a female assassin who murders abusive men and a preoccupation with Proust. In contrast, Colorless Tsukuru is a relatively slim and quiet volume. Some might say that it recalls Murakami’s earlier forays into realist fiction, although it’s not quite that either. The book showcases Murakami’s later talents as both a deeply intuitive and effortlessly inventive writer.

The book’s protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, 36 years old, is a pensive man obsessed by an unresolved high-school mystery, one that has traumatized him for almost two decades:

One day his four closest friends, the friends he’d known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask.

This is particularly devastating news because Tsukuru considered his friends to be the very center of his life, and he believes the deep bond he had with them is irreplaceable.

At present, Tsukuru lives alone in a Tokyo apartment and works as an engineer, designing and improving train stations, a career that has been his lifelong ambition and only goal. He has a girlfriend, Sara. Yet, he is still heavily impacted by the early abandonment, plagued by feelings of residual loss. When he tells Sara about the event that has so affected him, she suggests that he reconnect with the friends who cast him out. Actually it’s more of an ultimatum: she says that he must get to the bottom of this mystery — why his friends dumped him — if he wants to sleep with her again. So begins Tsukuru’s pilgrimage, a physical and emotional journey that sends him into the past, and as far away as Finland, on a quest to find answers and secure the love of a woman.

The title phrase Years of Pilgrimage is a reference both to Tsukuru’s journey and to the Liszt solo piano suite of the same name. The song “Le mal du pays” is played over and over throughout the novel — first by Shiro, Tsukuru’s talented high-school-friend, then in a recording by Lazar Berman given to Tsukuru by his college-friend Haida, and then again in another recording by Alfred Brendal, which Tsukuru encounters as an adult. The song becomes a kind of soundtrack, matching the novel in its melancholy mood and tone. “Le mal du pays” translates into English as “homesickness,” and indeed Tsukuru is plagued by a profound homesickness — by the realization that he can never re-capture the trust and intimacy which once came so easily.

And yet. Murakami devotees will no doubt see that we’re treading on well-worn ground. We’ve got train stations, lost high school friends, a preoccupation with a particular song, a woman who sends our protagonist on a difficult quest, and an underlying mystery, which gives the novel its detective-story shape. Careful readers will find similarities between this book and earlier Murakami works such as Norwegian Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart, and South of the Border, West of the Sun. It seems that even if Tsukuru can’t go home again, Murakami can.

But then Murakami is famous for reworking old material and returning to familiar themes. In a 2004 “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review he says as much:


Few novelists have written and rewritten their obsessions so compulsively, I think, as you have. Hard-Boiled Wonderful, Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Sputnik Sweetheart almost demand to be read as variations on a theme: a man has been abandoned by, or has otherwise lost, the object of his desire, and is drawn by his inability to forget her into a parallel world that seems to offer the possibility of regaining what he has lost, a possibility that life as he (and the reader) knows it can offer. Would you agree with this characterization?



In Colorless Tsukuru there’s a winking sort of acknowledgment that he’s done it all before. That Liszt sonata, for example. The first suite is composed mostly of revisions of pieces that Liszt had already published. And it’s likely no accident that “Le mal du pays” is performed in the novel by three different players, each of whom translates it differently, bringing a unique style and individual stamp to the shared material. In Murakami’s world, variation on a theme is the theme itself.

But if Colorless Tsukuru is revisiting history, its approach to that material feels fresh and surprising. Murakami has not yet tackled the issues of abandonment and loss with quite as much nuance or psychological depth. When Tsukuru’s friends dump him it seems to confirm his own deep, lingering fear that he himself is “colorless,” a term Tsukuru uses to express the feeling that he’s drifting through life with no special purpose or meaning. Each of Tsukuru’s high school friends is named after a color. There’s Shiro (white), Kuro (black), Aka (red), and Ao (blue). His college friend Haida’s name means “gray field.” And later in the novel, during a long interpolated story about a dying jazz pianist who can see colors of the auras of those around him, we meet Midorikawa, whose name means “green river” (the name Midorikawa should also be a pretty clear callback to fans of Norwegian Wood). Tsukuru suspects that his “colorless” name relates somehow to his own alienation. But his name is not meaningless. Tsukuru means “build,” and it’s a name that was decided for him by his father, long before he was born:

That’s how he became the person known as Tsukuru Tazaki. Before that he’d been nothing — dark, nameless chaos and nothing more. A less-than-seven pound pink lump of flesh barely able to breathe in the darkness, or cry out. First he was given a name. Then consciousness and memory developed, and, finally, ego. But everything began with his name.

The book’s preoccupation with names is also, then, a preoccupation with origins. What forces make us the way we are? Murakami has always shown an interest in names. In his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase,characters don’t have proper names. They are instead identified by their professions — there’s the secretary, the girlfriend, the sheep professor, and so on. That book’s narrator expresses a disdain for proper names. During a debate with a chauffeur who insists on naming the narrator’s cat, the narrator contends that names are useless. They don’t give us agency and don’t shape us, so what’s the point? “Herrings swim around on their own will,” he says, “but nobody gives them names.” The joke in that book is that the chauffeur wants to name the cat Kipper and so the name becomes a sort of red-herring, signifying neither cat nor trout.

In Colorless Tsukuru names are treated with more deference than disdain. Tsukuru, the engineer, really does make things after all. And a large part of Tsukuru’s struggle is to accept that his name, colorless though it may be, is a part of who he is. In accepting this, he comes to grips with the fact that his life has been shaped by any number of past events, most of which are arbitrary and completely beyond his control.

As I said earlier, this book is centered on a mystery and it should be said that readers who read for answers, who chew through pages to get to the hard nut why, may find this book frustrating. There are several loose threads, ideas are dropped almost as quickly as they’re picked up. Haida disappears with no explanation. The story about Midorikawa is unresolved. These dropped threads are no accident. Murakami’s decision to not answer all of the book’s questions seems to be his way of saying that we can’t know everything. Try as we might there will always be unanswered questions, mysteries that go unsolved.

The reader’s journey then coincides with Tsukuru’s. Both must accept that there are limits to knowing. The book insists on the importance of not shutting down, of opening oneself up in the face of the unknowable.

In Murakami-world, opening up means also letting go of logic when it no longer takes you someplace worthwhile. Midorikawa says as much at one point in the book: “I don’t believe in anything. Not in logic, or illogic. Not in God, or in the devil. No extension of a hypothesis, nothing like a leap. I just silently accept everything as it is. That’s my basic problem, really. I can’t erect a decent barrier between subject and object.” Tsukuru’s problem is the reverse: he erects this barrier too well. “So you went back to Tokyo,” Sara says when he waivers about why he hasn’t already tried reconnecting with his high school friends, “stayed holed up in your apartment, closed your eyes, and covered your ears.”

In his 2004 Believer interview, Murakami likens shutting down to a dysfunctional narrative. Talking about Shoko Asahara whose cult was responsible for the horrific Tokyo subway sarin attack, Murakami says: “The circuit of the story he offered was oppressive and firmly closed off from external input. By contrast, the circuit of a genuine story must be fundamentally spontaneous and always open to the outside.”

Closed circuits and open circuits. It brings to mind trains and train stations and Tsukuru’s obsession with both:

He loved to watch as trains passed by the station, or slowed down as they pulled up to the platform. He could picture the passengers coming and going, the announcements on the speaker system, the ringing of the signal as the train was about to depart, the station employees briskly going about their duties. What was real and what was imaginary mingled in his mind, and he’d tremble sometimes with the excitement of it all.

Stations are access points, places where people enter into a system, transforming, renewing, and infusing it with constant activity and life. The same could be said of this book. Colorless Tsukuru serves as an access point, a station that transports readers and connects them with Murakami’s previous works. Like his character, Murakami too appears to be building stations, opening the circuit, reconnecting with his past. I for one am happy to travel with Murakami as his train passes through all its stations, and this book left me feeling renewed and reinvigorated, reconnected with Murakami’s work in a way I haven’t felt in years. I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.


Bryan Hurt’s first book, Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, is the winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. It will be published in fall 2015.