Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Japanese literature, in common with much of Japanese cultural production, tends to have a strong emphasis on minimalism. Prose styles become simple, even simplistic and the effects to rely, at least in part, on culturally-specific markers which it is not always possible successfully to incorporate within a translation without adding details or footnotes, which can be a clumsy addition. Recently, staying for a period in a city centre apartment in Osaka the emphasis on spatial management within the household was re-emphasized in my understanding of Japanese society – and also led to the formulation of one of my New Year’s Resolutnios of decluttering my life, both at home and at work. Each movement must be considered and some thought devoted to any new item introduced. This is what struck me when reading the beginning of Haruki Murakami’ new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. One of the very first things that aspiring writers of fiction are taught is to show and not tell. Yet this and other dictums are violated, seemingly willfully so. Murakami is such a good writer that it is inconceivable that he would simply have phoned in the work. In due course, the author’s intentions become evident.
Initially, the colourless one – his nickname comes about because there are no characters in his name which suggest the presence of a colour, unlike the other four members of his tight-knit group of friends – lives in a world in which everything is, at least seen in retrospect, as very simple, straightforward and lacking in ambiguity. As the plot develops, so too does Tsukuru’s appreciation of the complexity of the relationships that make up contemporary life and the various compromises and ambivalences that life requires, just as the decision to introduce a new item to the household requires consideration His job involves designing new railway stations and repairing and upgrading existing ones. It sounds rather like a computer game, in which the omnipotent designer scarcely touches the real world while engineering changes in the running of Japan’s legendarily efficient public transport system. In one notable scene, Tsukuru is shown in his off-work time visiting different stations, observing what is going on, watching the unfolding of arrivals and departures without ever having to deal with another person (partly thanks to the country’s excellent vending machines). This is set in contrast with the other aspects of his life, which is described with increasing levels of complexity within the prose style – this, I imagine, must have presented quite a challenge to the translator Philip Gabriel, who has managed to keep out of the way of the text.
Murakami has become known as one of the most prominent and well-regarded writers of his generation and, reading and reflecting on this book, it is possible to see why. He has established a reputation for portraying through quite simple relationships (between characters, characters and their work, characters and what they eat and the music to which they listen and so forth) a mixture of profundity and whimsicality. He is, I think, a very modern writer and this is a skillful and sophisticated novel.