Because no information about Haruki Murakami's latest novel was released before it went on sale on April 12, its somewhat unusual title led to wide speculation among the public.
As it turns out, however, the mysterious-sounding "Shikisai wo Motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, Kare no Junrei no Toshi" (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) actually describes what the novel is about very clearly.
Tsukuru Tazaki is 36 and single. His childhood fascination with train stations leads him to work at a railway company in the department in charge of station design management.
While attending senior high school in Nagoya, he had four close friends--two boys and two girls. Although all five were totally different in character, or perhaps because of that fact, they formed a close and perfectly balanced relationship, similar to an equilateral pentagon.
Except for Tsukuru, the other four all had a kanji character for a color in their family name. Their nicknames were "red," "blue," "white" and "black."
Only Tsukuru had no color. He was also the only one of the five to attend a university in Tokyo. Before he turned 20, Tsukuru returned home during a school break. It was on that occasion that his four friends suddenly and one-sidedly told him that they were cutting off all ties with him, leaving him at a loss as to why they would do something like that.
Tsukuru was so shocked that he yearned for death. When he returned to the real world, he had undergone such a dramatic change that he could almost be considered a different person.
For the next 16 years, he never met up again with the four people he at one time considered to be his closest friends. However, through his work he does come to know an attractive woman named Sara, who is two years older than Tsukuru. She tells him that now is the time for him to find out the real reason why he was ostracized from his group of friends so long ago.
Thus begins the "pilgrimage" of Tsukuru Tazaki.
Tsukuru feels as though he is nothing but an empty container. One reason is because he has no "color." However, in exchange, his family name has the character "ta," meaning "many." The fact that he may be empty also means he is able to allow in many different things, the bad as well as the good.
In the end, his pilgrimage leads him unexpectedly to a lonely rural town in Finland. He encounters all at once the secret his four close friends held 16 years ago, the changes that have taken place since then, and what their lives are like now.
A number of facts, colored in both pain and kindness, as well as a number of mysteries that remain unsolved--and are likely not meant to be solved--emerge in that process.
In an interview, Haruki Murakami said that after writing the first few lines after a thought entered his mind, he simply continued to write even though he had no clear view of how the story would unfold.
Despite that, the novel has the feel of converging to a conclusion while presenting a large vortex as it makes its way in the beginning and to its end.
Sara tells Tsukuru, "Even though you may be able to hide your memories, you cannot change history."
The past does, in fact, continue to exist somewhere. For that reason, we have to, at some point, find the courage to face it, even if that past is filled with sorrow, despair and unresolved mystery.
That is likely what Haruki Murakami wants to say.
* * *
Haruki Murakami was born in 1949 and his novels have won numerous awards both in Japan and abroad. His latest novel is published by Bungeishunju Ltd. and sells for 1,785 yen ($18), excluding tax.
Atsushi Sasaki is a professor of literary criticism at Waseda University's School of Culture, Media and Society.
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