Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – A Fascinating Read Filled With Mysteries

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a fascinating read. In fact, this is my third read in the span of a few years. Each pass I am able to spot more linkages between the plots. And more passages highlighted for future reference.

Like many of Murakami novels, Colorless is filled with mysteries. The main character – a 36 years old Tsukuru Tazaki – recounted one moment in his college life, that he had contemplated to commit suicide. It all started with a group of five back in school. Every one with a name associated to a color except Tsukuru.

Soon, the other four friends began to use nicknames: the boys were called Aka (red) and Ao (blue); and the girls were Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). But he just remained Tsukuru. How great it would be, he often thought, if I had a color in my name too. Then everything would be perfect.

Out of nowhere, all four friends of Tsukuru have refused to talk to and to meet with him. The shock was so intense that he had lost the will to live.

“That was the first time in my life that anyone has rejected me so completely,” Tsukuru said. “And the ones who did it were the people I trusted the most, my four best friends in the world. I was so close to them that they had been like an extension of my own body. Searching for a reason, or correcting a misunderstanding, was beyond me. I was simply, and utterly, in shock. So much so that I thought I might never recover. It felt like something inside me had snapped.”

Tsukuru recounted his story because his new girlfriend Sara wanted to know more about this emotional burden that has been hindering the relationship. More so, Sara wants Tsukuru to face his past. As Sara has once said:

You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.

This sets off the direction of Colorless with the ultimate rewards of Sara becoming Tsukuru’s serious girlfriend and Tsukuru getting to know exactly what went on with his four best friends abandoning him at the same time.

The good news is that this book is an entertaining read from beginning to end. The not so good news is that at the end of book, you still would not know the answers to the two ultimate questions. But here lies the brilliance of this book. We could imagine what the outcomes would be. But we may never grasp what is real. Like our main character Tsukuru once experienced. There are going to be plenty open questions.

And he couldn’t grasp the boundary between dream and imagination, between what was imaginary and what was real.

What I love most about Colorless is how well planned the plot is. Sara does not appear often in this book. But she drives the entire story. She uncovers the issues and she wants a resolution. Even as Tsukuru (and the readers too) has no clue on what to do next, Sara drops hints at the crucial moment on what is to come. She is like the prophet, always one step ahead. While many including I would debate on what Sara would do with Tsukuru when all is resolved, I am leaning towards a happy ending because Sara comes across to me as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Her moves are reliability predictable. I doubt she has any agenda except to remove this emotional burden of Tsukuru so that their relationship can move forward.

Now, the story between Sara and Tsukuru is easy to summarize. How the mystery unfolds is not. Because the subplots are subtly linked through different time lines and storyline. And how the dreams affect the imagination which in turn distort the reality adds another layer of abstract to the story.

Putting all that aside, there are consistent references to having to make hard decisions, though seemingly unrelated during my first read. Let’s think of body and heart.

In this dream, though, he burned with desire for a woman. It wasn’t clear who she was. She was just there. And she had a special ability to separate her body and her heart. I will give you one of them, she told Tsukuru. My body or my heart. But you can’t have both. You need to choose one or the other, right now. I will give the other part to someone else, she said.

(This would make a good conversation. In real life though, which would you choose and why?)

In the context of corporate ‘brainwashing’ though executive training:

I have some good news for you, and some bad news. The bad news first. We’re going to have to rip off either your fingernails or your toenails with pliers. I’m sorry, but it’s already decided. It can’t be changed. Here’s the good news. You have the freedom to choose which it’s going to be – your fingernails, or your toenails. So, which will it be?

(That pretty much sums up what real world can be like at work.)

And finally, the resolution.

“And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other one entirely.”

To go back to my leaning towards a happy ending, let’s go back to the final conversation between Eri (Kuro) and Tsukuru.

“But it’s strange, isn’t it?” Eri said.

“What is?”

“That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”

Tsukuru nodded silently. He thought he should say something, but no words came.

What was it that he wanted to say as he was pondering upon whether or not Sara would accept him in the very end of the book?

Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tsukuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye […]

What then survives the flow of time? I believe that it is hope.

We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something – with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

While I am happy to be able to extract that much from the book, one side-plot still eludes me is on Haida (Grey).

Haida became Tsukuru’s best friend after Tsukuru has decided that dying was not the best option moving forward. Besides, to will his heart to stop was as he found out later an impossible task. Here are what I have gathered from the story of Haida.

  • Grey is a mix of black and white. The two colors that symbolize Shiro and Kuro – the two girls in the original group of five. It seems to me that Haida is a male replacement of the two.
  • The sexually insinuated dreams between Tsukuru, Shiro, and Kuro has been once replaced by a dream involving Tsukuru and Haida, also sexual in nature.
  • To me, the original group of five reminds me of a hand with five fingers. It was natural. Haida has come across as the sixth finger.
  • Haida once recounted a story of his father (also called Haida) to Tsukuru. At one point, Tsukuru thought the story came from Haida himself.
  • Haida (the father) has met a jazz pianist called Midorikawa (Green) who in possession of (1) a mysterious small bag, (2) a special ability to see aura, and (3) a deadly burden that temporarily granted him the special ability but would cost him his life unless he could pass this deadly burden to a willing party.
  • Haida (the father) did not accept. Midorikawa has then disappeared.
  • Haida (Tsukuru’s friend) all of a sudden disappeared from Tsukuru’s life.
  • The story of his father may have been the story of Haida himself.
  • One of Tsukuru’s side mission is to find out what happened to Haida in order to fully remove his emotional burden. The book does not seem to have a resolution on this side-story.
  • Years later, a formaldehyde jar containing two severed sixth fingers are found in one of Tsukuru’s train stations.
  • This jar, I presume, belongs to Midorikawa – the mysterious small bag. So the story is real. Could this be the resolution?

So many ways to interpret the story. Did Haida accept the deadly burden and hence explains his second disappearance? Did he have the special ability all along or only after his first disappearance? Is that why there were those surreal moments between him and Tsukuru? More importantly, how does this story branch relate to the main story, if at all?

Still, Tsukuru felt that Haida’s clear eyes had seen right though him that night, to what lay in his unconscious. Traces of Haida’s gaze still stung, like a mild burn. Haida had, at that time, observed Tsukuru’s secret fantasies and desires, examining and dissecting them one by one […]

One constant theme in this book is about death and disappearance, heartache and reconciliation, reborn and recover. That much I can be certain of.

ISBN 978-4-16-382110-8

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