Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Haruki Murakami wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, his magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a masterful blending of reality and dreamlike sequences (some literally in characters’ dreams) that combine to explore Japan’s trouble dealing with its brutal legacy from World War II. It’s #16 on my top 100 novels of all-time list. He followed that up with another tremendous novel, Kafka on the Shore, in 2002, another book that deals with the philosophical aftermath of the second world war, weaving a brilliant twin narrative that also delves into dialectics, the dream/reality divide, and “really good dumps.”

Since Kafka, however, Murakami has written just three novels, none up to the level of those two works. After Dark was short and felt unfinished, while I never bothered with his thousand-page tome 1Q84 due to its heft and comments from friends that it wasn’t worth the time required. Given the positive press around his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I at least had some optimism that Murakami was getting back to peak form, but after ripping through it last week, I am sorry to report that this book sucked. It’s a cold, aimless, distant, unsatisfying novel that takes Murakami’s frequent theme of alienation to the extreme of alienating the reader from the book itself.

The title character is seriously bummed out, with good reason: once part of an extremely tight-knit quintet of friends, he found himself abandoned and shunned by the other four without reason or warning, entering a period of suicidal depression for six months before emerging a very different person on the other side, although his life afterwards remains monotonous and largely friendless. Now in his late 30s, Tsukuru, an engineer who designs railway stations, finds himself in the first serious relationship of his life, but his semi-girlfriend, Sara, insists that he confront his four friends to deal with the unresolved sadness and angst that is blocking him from fully committing to their (or any) relationship.

It’s a solid premise for a book, but what happens next is a whole lot of nothing. Tsukuru visits his friends one by one, eventually going to Finland for the last of the encounters, and gets factual answers to his questions of why he was excommunicated, but only in the most superficial way. He learns about two crimes committed against one of the friends, the first of which was loosely connected to his banishment, but Murakami never bothers to go into those in any detail, much less tell the reader who committed them. While the novel ends with Tsukuru obtaining a sort of closure, it’s a thoroughly unsatisfying variety at least for the reader; there’s no cathartic event, but there isn’t even enough of an explanation to justify Tsukuru feeling any resolution of what’s “blocking” him. He believes he’s “colorless,” but why did the novel about him have to be that way too?

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant.


  1. Mat Gonzales

    Disappointed to discover this was such a dud. Picked up The Buried Giant today and hoping that won’t be quite as much of a train wreck. Have you ever read Heart of A Dog by Bulgakov?

  2. Dave Chapman

    Looking forward to your thoughts on “The Buried Giant”. I don’t think it ranks among Ishiguro’s best, but it explores the recurring themes of his books more explicitly than most. I think it might be his most accessible book.

  3. Hi Keith – haven’t read ‘Colorless’ yet, but just wanted to say, I completely disagree about 1Q84 being worth reading. Although it’s a hefty tome, it was a really quick read – I think I put it down in 2 weeks, and I’m nowhere as fast of a reader as you are, based on what you’ve mentioned (I average a normal 350-400 page in novel in about 2 weeks, depending on how busy I am at work, generally, but just couldn’t put down 1Q84).

    Now, 1Q84 was my first introduction to Murakami, so that may have something to do with how much I loved it*, as it definitely retreads some of the same ground as Wind-Up Bird and also his Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World (both of which I really enjoyed), but for me feels much more about overcoming trauma on a personal level (and finding love/humanity despite that past trauma, be it neglectful parents, religious fanaticism, et al) than the broader WWII related themes you saw in Wind-Up Bird. Though perhaps I just overlooked them. But if you enjoyed Wind Up Bird, I’d at least give 1Q84 a shot.

    *a common phenomenon with a lot of idiosyncratic artists, in all mediums, for me at least – the first one is so new and alive feeling, and the next work you encounter loses that novelty and has to stand just on the merits of its execution, for better or worse.

  4. Keith, I recently read both Buried Giant and Colorless, great timing…

    I thought Colorless was just OK, it had great potential but Murakami left too many unresolved issues and like you said, it was very hard to like the protanganist…it never felt as interesting to read as another one of his similar “teen angst” books, Norwegian Wood, which I like a lot better than Colorless.

    Buried Giant was a great allegorical fairy tale…not sure if you read the NYT backstory to Ishigura’s composition of this book? (I’m having trouble with my work access to the NYT, so can’t link it right now)…essentially, he crafted the idea for this story long ago and developed his manuscript. He never felt comfortable trying to get it published because of it’s “out there” subject, and especially after his wife read it and gave it a big thumbs down…fast forward to today, and after becoming a lot more accomplished and comfortable in this author’s skin, he finally re-visited it and this is where we are now. Check out that article, very interesting..