Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

A quick, elegantly structured, and sometimes frustrating novel about lost friendships. Nostalgia is Murakami’s thing, and there’s plenty of it realized very effectively here, but two of the three women at the heart of the story are basically just plot devices. That’s a problem from the start, and it only compounds given some of the turns in the latter half of the book.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a thirty-something rail station engineer who, as a college student, was mysteriously rejected by his four closest high school friends. His present-day girlfriend Sara, a literal and figurative travel agent, exists primarily to Gandalf him through the plot, first spurring him to solve his longstanding personal mystery and then guiding him from one investigative reunion to the next.

This basic structure – moving from reunion to reunion – has a beautiful sort of simplicity, and there’s real power in seeing how a sequence of people have changed over the course of a decade and a half. But we never get more than a cursory sense of who these people were in the past: this guy a jock, that guy a nerd, this girl the arty one. That shallowness gets even more frustrating as the story begins to deal with serious trauma in one of the characters’ history, which the book treats sympathetically but thinly, and perhaps more as a plot machination than a lived experience.

There’s some surprisingly rough prose here, too. I’ve seen some reviews point out this line, which gets at both the infelicity of the language and the often shallow rendering of women:

“Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed.”

Hard to know whether that’s a question of the original language or subtleties that aren’t coming across in the translation. I could imagine that “appearance” and “way-she-dressed” might have more specific and distinct meanings in Japanese. Either way, there’s more jarringly awkward writing here than I’ve noticed in other Murakami books.

Still, the novel includes some really compelling and true-feeling scenes between old friends who haven’t seen one another in over a decade. And tucked in the middle of the novel is a better short story that traces the arc of a sudden college friendship. There’s a lot of emotionally exacting characterization in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – but very little for the women at its center, and that leaves the book feeling unfinished.