This post contains spoilers.
The quiet, melancholy music gradually gave shape to the undefined sadness enveloping his heart, as if countless microscopic bits of pollen adhered to an invisible being concealed in the air, ultimately revealing, slowly and silently, its shape.
-from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
I’ve often wondered why I like Haruki Murakami’s books so much. Since I read Sputnik Sweetheart, about nine years ago, I’ve been a fan of Murakami’s writing. I devoured The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the couch of a North Melbourne share-house, and his story collections kept me company on numerous subway rides through Seoul. Murakami’s short stories are good, but there is something so addictive about his novels. What that ‘something’ is, though, I’m not quite sure. His books are not compelling in any traditional, easy-to-point-to way: there are no real twists, Murakami’s main characters are fairly similar, and there’s a whole lot of confusing surreal stuff going on. I’m not the only one to find this writer oddly captivating, however. As Toby Lichtig notes in The Wall Street Journal Murakami is something of a “global literary rock star.” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (his latest novel) sold one million copies in Japan in the first week of its release, and his work has been translated into more than fifty languages. Is Haruki Murakami just a popular trend, like loom bracelets or bubble tea? Do I like him simply because everyone else does? I don’t think so (I’ve never stayed up into the early hours of the morning making bracelets). Then why? As Daniel Handler asks in The New York Times, “What’s so beguiling about Haruki Murakami?”
Perhaps the answer lies in thinking carefully about this latest novel. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is – simply put – about a man trying to understand why his close-knit group of school friends suddenly abandoned him when he was in university. The book revolves around (and sometimes meanders away from) this central mystery. Tsukuru, now in his thirties, is encouraged by Sara (a potential love interest) to discover the truth about what happened. Sara believes that if Tsukuru doesn’t comes to terms with his past he will always feel emotionally troubled, and will never be able to fully commit to a relationship with her (or anyone else). Tsukuru tracks down each of his former friends – two are still in his home town of Nagoya, one is in Finland, and one is dead. Without any great difficulty (everyone – with the notable exception of the deceased Shiro – is very willing to talk) Tsukuru learns what it was that led his friends to distance themselves from him. He returns to Japan ready to be with Sara (“It was a wonderful thing to be able to truly want someone”), and the novel ends just before the two meet. Will they get together and live happily ever after? Possibly. Probably it doesn’t matter – the real resolution seems to be the putting to rest of Tsukuru’s emotional confusion.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is seemingly simple and straightforward. However, as Meg Wolitzer writes for NPR, Murakami is “both easy to read and not so easy to understand.” Nothing much happens in this novel … except actually so much does. There are so many random moments and storylines that, at the time, don’t seem to add up to anything. But they stay with you long after the book is finished, burrowing away at your subconscious like fragments of a dream, nagging at you to thread them together and make them into some kind of whole. The character of Haida, for example, who re-introduces Tsukuru to a piano piece by Liszt (Le Mal Du Pays). The story-within-a-story of Haida’s father meeting a man destined to die. The building of train stations. People having six fingers (polydactyly). Swimming. A ‘Viva Las Vegas’ ringtone. Etc. My copy of the novel came with a page of stickers: a Starbucks coffee and a scone, a bottle of Cutty Sark, a sketch book, a pair of glasses. Reminders of bits and pieces of the novel that I’m now not sure what to do with. Perhaps if I stick them somewhere – anywhere – they will someday (subconsciously, dreamily) pull themselves together and make sense. Or maybe not.
There is a curious mix, in Murakami’s writing, of realism and surrealism. Lines like:
He switched on the AC, made coffee, and had a cup with a slice of toast and melted cheese
Co-exist in the same text with erotic dreams and people passing ‘death tokens’ to each other. Patti Smith, writing for The New York Times, wonders what readers of Murakami are looking for – “the surreal, intra-dimensional side … or his more minimalist, realist side?” For me it’s the combination of the two that is most interesting. One of the things I love about Murakami is his writing style (although of course my experience is somewhat diluted by reading in translation). It is so simple, but never feels banal. Each word feels deliberately placed, carefully chosen. There is something calming about reading writing like this – it reminds me of a haiku, or a tea ceremony. My brain likes this sort of careful control of language – it feels safe and comfortable reading these sorts of sentences. But Murakami also satisfies my brain’s craving for the ridiculous, for talking animals and unexplained body parts found in train stations. Daniel Handler comes pretty close to an explanation for Murakami’s popularity when he writes: “I think the secret to his [Murakami’s] appeal might be precisely the way in which his work filters itself into the brain.” Perhaps what makes Murakami so readable is his careful balance of the real and the unreal, the conscious and the unconscious. He is writing at a frequency that resonates with both areas of the brain. Just like a beautiful piece of music – relaxing, stimulating, and lingering.
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. He now lives near Tokyo. The English language edition of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was first published in 2014.