Haruki Murakami / Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage / Review
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – review
Full of ambiguity and sex – all Murakami's signature flourishes are here
Illustration by Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.uk
Very few writers reach the stage of being able to include in their books wry references to their failure to win the Nobel prize in literature. But, inBech at Bay (1998), John Updike awarded his authorial surrogate, Henry Bech, the Swedish medal and cheque that Updike feared (correctly, it proved) he was doomed never to win himself. And now the 14th work of fiction by Haruki Murakami, a Nobel favourite in recent years among the bookmakers but not the judges, features a young physics student lamenting that few in his profession make much money unless they "win the Nobel prize or something".
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami
Although his dig is less pointed than Updike's, Murakami will have known the effect that even such a glancing nod to the Swedish Academy will have had on his readership: in Japan, fans have taken to gathering in cafes with champagne on ice on the day that the news comes from Stockholm. The connection of the Nobel with wealth can be seen as cheeky, because Murakami is perhaps the only contender for the prize to whom the millions of kronor wouldn't make much difference. Almost without precedent in modern times, he has combined giddy popularity – in Japan, his novels can sell 1m copies in the week of publication – with the literary prestige of admiring reviews from giants such as Updike.
Among the awards the Japanese author has claimed is the Franz Kafka prize, which is fitting because the Czech fabulist haunts Murakami's fiction as both an explicit presence – in Kafka on the Shore (2002) – and a general tutelary influence. And, in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the Kafkaesque spectre in the text is The Trial.
The title character forms, at school, a tight quintet with four friends – two male, two female – whose names all happen, in Japanese, to include a colour: red, blue, white, black. Tazaki, as they often joke, is in this way nominally a blank, which, he comes to think, suits his isolated, sexless, affectless nature: "He lacked a striking personality or anything that made him stand out." Tsukuru also considers himself boring and so feels shocked but also oddly vindicated when his friends suddenly tell him that they wish to have no further contact with him. The majority of the narrative involves the protagonist's quest – which takes him as far as Finland – to understand the reason for his ostracism.
One reason for Murakami's huge readership is that, unlike many serious novelists, he is as interested in plot as prose. His novels – including Norwegian Wood (1987) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95) – are mystery stories of a kind, and so it is only fair to protect the suspense over the exact nature of the character's alleged offence.
However, in a variation on what happened to Kafka's Josef K, he has been tried and convicted of a crime in absentia and what initially seemed to be (like Norwegian Wood) a study of youthful alienation becomes a contribution to the subgenre of (probably) false accusation that includesThe Trial, Heinrich Böll's The Lost Honourof Katharina Blum and Philip Roth's The Human Stain. The metaphorical jeopardy is that the colourless central character may also have a dark side.
All the author's signature flourishes are here, including a significant piece of music (Liszt's "Le mal du pays" underscores this novel), an impressive range of cultural reference (name-checks include Arnold Wesker, Pet Shop Boys, Barry Manilow and Thomas Harris) and a deep interest in sex. Central to the narrative is Tsukuru's recurrent wet dream featuring his two estranged women friends. Even given Murakami's previous explorations of erotic psychology, this novel goes into dark areas including the possibilities of dream rape, subconscious bisexuality and accidental mental necrophilia: what is the morality of having had masturbatory fantasies about someone who turns out to have been dead during the period of your imaginary relations?
A reader without Japanese is completely at the mercy of Murakami's translators; when the prose lowers to cliche or commonplace – as it seems to do surprisingly often in this novel – there is no way of knowing if Philip Gabriel is accurately representing his client or letting him down. A further frustration for the British reader is that the publishers here have maintained the spelling and vocabulary of the US edition – "fit", "gotten", "sophomore" – which then leads to another culture clash during paragraphs about the significance of the Japanese pronouns and honorifics in use during conversations.
Three particular sentences also seem an unwise move from Murakami. One of Tsuruku's former friends, reflecting on the failure of another of the quartet to achieve success in her chosen field, says: "Talent is like a container. You can work as hard as you want, but the size will never change. It'll only hold so much water and no more."
But, as Murakami must have realised when committing to that image, some water may drain away or evaporate. And, in this book, the container is rarely more than two-thirds full.
Although as adept as ever at setting up Kafkaesque ambiguity and atmosphere, he disappointingly chooses to leave most of the mysteries unresolved. Even so, it would be a great shame if, as with Updike, the words "Nobel prize" ultimately appear only in his fiction rather than his CV.