Haruki Murakami constructs human drama on a railway platform.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf (Borzoi), $25.95 (400 pages).
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
Where do ideas begin? How are they spread? Researchers at GDI, an independent think tank in Zurich, consider such questions. They study significant creative intellectuals in our world. Seven novelists made their most recent list of Top 100 Global Thought Leaders. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was one of them, at Number 47 for his most notable idea: the “utopia of love.”
You believe happiness to be derived from the place
in which once you have been happy,
but in truth it is centered in ourselves.
Murakami continues to explore aspects of the idea of love in his latest book released in English this past August: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which is considerably easier to tote around than his last one—if you like tactility in your tomes. The story of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki spans a mere 400 pages, whereas Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, clocked in around 1,000. Tazaki is also more compact, making it a delight to hold.
I have a Kindle version as well, but I kept returning to the hardback—partly due to Chip Kidd’s masterful design. In his 2012 TED talk, Kidd said he considers what stories look like when he gives form to content: “A book cover is a distillation—a haiku, if you will, of the story.” He also designed 1Q84, in which Murakami played with ideas about the moon and love in parallel universes. One dictionary definition of the word moonstruck is “in another world,” which certainly fits the themes of 1Q84—almost as if they arose from a line by Ovid writing of love in his narrative poem Metamorphoses: “It’s not as though the moon had interposed its own pallor between the earth and you.”
Which makes it all the more interesting, then, to find Murakami’s book that followed 1Q84, the recent Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, segueing so neatly into Ovid’s very next line in Metamorphoses: “Love is the force that leaves you colorless.”
Who is Tsukuru Tazaki and why is he colorless? He is an engineer in Tokyo who designs railway stations. A woman has brought a spot of color into Tazaki’s life but she notices something missing. She suggests he needs to solve the mystery of an event that occurred in his younger years among his tight-knit group of friends, an incident that has weighed him down ever since. He has lost touch with them, but she assists Tazaki in procuring the information he’ll need to track down the four friends. Then she leaves him to his task. Readers travel with Tazaki between past and present, at times wondering if it’s all just a waking dream. Slowly, through his search, he attains the peace of knowing with certainty just who he is in the present moment.
Readers are not the only people provoked to think as they make their way through novels. Writing is a particularly enlightening art for the one placing the words down, as an author plumbs personal experience and lays the tracks of a plot while designing the platform. Is Murakami consciously plumbing the depths of his life as he writes? Or are his fascinating novels purely imagination, unfueled by self-analysis? Murakami can be read on so many levels beyond the mere storyline in his books, as he steadfastly sprinkles his unique style with philosophical, musical, artistic, cultural, sexual, psychological, romantic, and other types of thoughts. His genre-spanning tales are intellectually nuanced with brilliant metaphors every which way you look.Murakami noted how he employs music in his writing during a 2004 interview for the Paris Review: “Writing a book is just like playing music: first I play the theme, then I improvise, then there is a conclusion, of a kind.” The musical score Murakami selected as a leitmotif for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is part of a Franz Liszt piano composition, Years of Pilgrimage, called “Le mal du pays” (homesickness). In the novel, pianist Lazar Berman plays one character’s preferred version. Tazaki’s melancholy longing for earlier contented times with his hometown friends becomes a homesick refrain throughout the book.
Composer Franz Schubert expressed that idea in the quote I included at the beginning of this review. An interesting artistic representation of the thought might be found in a painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau titled Pilgrimage to Cythera, in which one art expert at the Louvre notes a young woman “looking back in nostalgia at the place where she has spent so many happy hours.”
In Murakami’s Tsukuru Tazaki, there’s still a touch of the little child in the man, who developed a passion for trains at an early age not unlike those felt by current young aficionados of Thomas the Tank Engine. Tsukuru Tazaki became one of the lucky people able to translate a longstanding fascination into a profession. Or perhaps it was simply destiny, as the name “Tsukuru” chosen by his father means “to make or build.”
The novel is a mix of magic realism, societal commentary, and Bildungsroman as Murakami explores Tazaki’s formative years—not unlike the Goethe classic Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
And in a nod to Goethe’s sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, a journeyman apprentice follows Tazaki around at one point in Murakami’s novel.
The bulk of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki takes place in Japan, but a section is set in Finland. Reading Murakami always takes your mind to new realms. In this book, he blends observations on such diverse topics as wristwatches, lung cancer, online information, personal development seminars, Lexus cars, dominant genes, decimal systems, polydactylism, swimming, and happiness—to name but a few.
Occasionally stilted conversations and what seem like odd translation glitches do pop up, but these minor blips can’t mar the joy of coming across lovely visual sentences like this one: “She led him down the hallway with long strides, heels clicking hard and precise like the sounds a faithful blacksmith makes early in the morning.”
To establish the social function of railway stations in Japan, Murakami crafts portions of this novel in the maze of Shinjuku, the world’s busiest railway station with over three million passengers each day. In an elegant ending, the last train of the night pulls away as if it were a curtain coming down on a play’s final act.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage lists thirteen other works of fiction by Murakami, plus a nonfiction book and a memoir. Murakami’s next novel, The Strange Library, will be released December 2. Get ready for a tale of a young boy’s outlandish day at the public library.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.