Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageKnopf, 2014, 400 pp., $25.95
I grew interested in the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in the way young people grow interested in many things, but particularly in books: by seeing attractive people reading them.Around my junior year of college, I began to see beautiful young women and interesting young men poring over, or pretending to pore over, both recent and vintage Murakami. Often they seemed to be English majors or “Cultural Studies” types, clad in semi-hippie style: Beads and expressive dresses, yes. Drab corporate-wear and accessories bearing logos, no—though some couture items were exempted. Even in the bohemian Montreal of the early 2000s, thick black glasses were not yet in fashion, so you could see the searching, somewhat naive eyes of literary types of both sexes. But Murakami was also much loved by the party people whose favorite nightly activity (weekend or weeknight) was dancing on bar tables, and by the scientists, the only ones who actually seemed to do any work.This didn’t happen only on campus, but everywhere around town. On the Montreal metro, I remember trying to engage a stunning French-Canadian woman in conversation about the novel she was reading, one of the author’s jazzy pop-mysticism novels of the early 1990s in French translation. This was one of the hippest parts of the Murakami oeuvre, about which only the real cognoscenti knew. She seemed interested in hearing from me, but in mangled French all I could say was how très intéressant I thought everything was. That encounter was the best motivation I had for signing up for French class.Murakami sightings continued over the next few years, in places as diverse as Toronto, Paris, and Jerusalem. The “attractive and interesting people read Murakami” thesis was validated by its applicability in different contexts. By then, of course, I had advanced from staring at readers of Murakami to actually reading him myself. (I leave it to others to judge whether this, too, supported the thesis.) Indeed, I inhaled everything he wrote. Such was my zeal that I had extensive thoughts on the relative strengths of Murakami’s three main English translators, as if I knew something about Japanese. But some of the translations seemed crisper and more attuned to Murakami’s austere style and sometimes broken sentences, which he composed to echo the rhythms of jazz. Murakami had a single formula: the life of some anonymous male, usually in early middle age, is interrupted by some unexpected, usually “mysterious” event such as the sudden disappearance of a loved one. The phlegmatic protagonist would then embark on a mission to figure things out and strengthen his relationship with others or himself. Murakami’s mysteries are never resolved; what the character learns and feels in the face of this interruption of daily life is the point. The fun lies in going along with him.The recent publication in English of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (2013) brought to mind my own voracious Murakami consumption of a decade ago. The formula was just the same: In the case of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the disruption happened years before the hero’s middle age, when he left his native Nagoya for the university in Tokyo. In high school, Tsukuru had been part of an inseparable group of five friends, three boys and two girls. They were all good at something: One boy is a remarkable athlete while the other is effortlessly brainy; one girl is a piano prodigy and the other shows real literary promise. Only Tsukuru Tazaki, decent at most things but excellent at none, is indistinct. With his sole worldly interest in trains and train stations, he seems to be “colorless.”Upon graduation, Tsukuru’s four friends, hoping to keep up their friendship, attend local universities rather than more prestigious ones further afield. Tsukuru, however, goes to study engineering in Tokyo. At first, each time Tsukuru returns home for vacation, the friendship circle resumes where things left off. Then, suddenly, his friends cut him off without explanation. While the novel revisits these events and Tsukuru’s college years, it is set nearly twenty years later when Tsukuru, prompted by his new girlfriend, finally decides to find out what happened years earlier. The journey takes him back to Nagoya, to his old friends, and even on a trip to Finland. He finds out the “facts” of what happened but not, as usual, what they mean.The book has its strong points. Notable is the perceptive portrait of the high school friendship circle—what each is like intellectually and physically, how they spend their time together, their efforts to guard the platonic nature of the friendships. A long digression follows a young man who “leaves the city” (another recurring theme in Murakami), winding up in a desolate inn haunted by birdsong that is as tantalizing as it is unsettling.Tsukuru’s search for meaning, however, is much less rewarding than those in earlier works like The Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance. His meetings with his now typical middle-aged friends with their typical middle-aged problems are frankly boring. So too is Tsukuru’s psychology. He goes on his quest because his girlfriend Sara tells him, in Philip Gabriel’s English rendering, to deal with his “unresolved emotional issues.” If Murakami intended Sara to be, like Abraham’s wife, the perfect helpmeet, he did not succeed. She rather seems like the stand-in for a self-help book or a bad shrink.The flaws of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki are unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm of his fans around the globe. Passing politely over the probable decline in reading since my college days, one can assume that tablets and smartphones, even if they contain books, are eroding the peculiar charm of seeing and being seen with wacky book covers. But Murakami mania has only continued to grow since my own period of enthusiasm, and he is now a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize for literature.In the meantime, Murakami has conquered America. He struggled to find an American publisher for his break-out 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood (a full translation of which was only published in 2000). When Kafka on the Shore was published in 2005, the initial American print run was only 30,000 copies. 2011’s IQ84, by contrast, had a first run of 95,000. The initial critical reaction in America to Murakami was also mixed. In 1997, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani described The Wind Up Bird Chronicle as promising but ultimately “fragmentary and chaotic.” For Jonathan Franzen, who had his own cult following among the young before his mass success, this “chaos” was its appeal: “There’s so much more going on in the world, and I don’t have to go outward to find it. I go inward to find it. I go down in a hole to find it.” He went on to call the Wind Up Bird Chronicle one of the “great novels” of the last thirty or forty years. From the current “Great American Novelist” (according to Time), such a benediction is meaningful. What explains it?Murakami’s writing is indisputably cool. I do not mean the cool of your contemporary resident of Williamsburg, for whom the word seems to mean faux-ironic attachment to idiosyncratic, usually frivolous, things—and disdain for everything else. To be sure, Murakami starts from a place of ironic detachment. Like Tsukuru Tazaki, most of his lead characters have no special ability or even strong interest in anything. But like the “magical realists” to whom he is sometimes compared, Murakami uses humdrum existence as a stage upon which to project more interesting images, ideas, and even alternate ways of life. He does not revel in detachment; rather, it is the starting point of a search for that something or series of somethings that might elevate a character’s life. In Murakami, this usually takes the form of looking for “deeper human connection” within life rather than some heightened understanding of it.Still, when reading Murakami, one can’t help but think of the original meaning of philosophy—the examination of how you ought to live your life. Murakami’s protagonists usually pose something resembling this question, and references to philosophy do appear in Murakami. In Kafka on the Shore, another picaresque novel that centers on a journey, the narrator mentions the Greek comic poet Aristophanes’ famous speech in Plato’s Symposium. In ancient times, there were three species of human beings: “male-male,” “female-male,” and “male-male”—each of which were whole. But Zeus then cut them in half as punishment for a prideful attempt to scale Olympus. The upshot is that, in the present day, humans spend their time looking for their missing halves. For Plato’s Aristophanes, this is high and low comedy. If you believe that “pursuing one’s longing for physical connection” is the purpose of life, says Aristophanes, you need to look at human creatures as they appear, crooked and downright weird. In Murakami’s works, however, this search for the missing half is an entirely serious affair—perhaps the only one. Yet it is a curiously narrow quest, for Murakami ignores much—if not most—of what defines humans in their incompleteness.Murakami is adept at minimalist description, particularly of artistic activities—literature, fashion, representing the human figure, pottery, cooking, (Murakami was at least a decade ahead of the foodie movement that may slightly improve your taste but definitely makes you insufferable company), “interesting” sex, and, especially, music. All of these he presents in cosmopolitan terms. The food and drink is often more Western than Japanese, or at least global. Murakami’s literary firmament is full of writers like Kafka and Flaubert. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, like other Murakami works, has a nice, melancholy account of our contemporary version of the cinq à sept, those hours after work when your brain is fried from staring at a screen, and you have to decide whether to face rush hour immediately or else defer it with an exercise or drinking session. Such experiences, in our day, really are global—the worker bees of New York as well as Tokyo probably experience them in similar ways. Until about a generation ago, significant differences in lifestyle persisted even among developed nations. Anyone who has tried to get someone in Paris on the phone in August knows that they still, to a certain degree, persist. But, despite some stubborn political resistance, the homogenizing effects of modernity proceed apace. And Murakami plays well in that environment.Indeed, there is something de-national about Murakami’s stories. His characters are identifiably Japanese and live in real Japanese cities like Tokyo and Nagoya, but the characters and places seem oddly ethereal. Like the five-year-old son of a friend of mine, Tsukuru Tazaki likes to pass much of his free-time watching trains, in the main Tokyo Railway station. He could just as easily be at Grand Central or Waterloo. We do not see any characterization of city politics, not to mention finance, bureaucracy, labor relations, commuting patterns (biking or driving?), crime, and other activities whose gradations distinguish one city from another. Certainly we never learn anything about national politics. Murakami’s cities recall the no-place modern city of Blade Runner.Is this a secret of Murakami’s success? His impressive cultural arsenal is highly appealing—not to say flattering—to Western readers. Here is someone from a far off-land, indeed an essentially closed society, about which we know almost unbelievably little (do we realize, for instance, just how crazy Abe is?). And yet, Murakami seems to “get it.” A Murakami protagonist can wear a t-shirt of Snoopy with a surfboard, whistle along with Rossini, read Thomas Mann. Tsukuru Tazaki can decide whether to go to a gourmet eel restaurant or a French bistro, or else have a pizza. There’s a wonderful, perhaps too wonderful, worldliness here—the tacit resolve to collect only the pearls from the mountains of trash in all world cultures. Like classical music academies in China, Murakami can seem like a harbinger of the globalization of good taste.Music is probably the most prominent example of Murakami as global tastemaker. Books and essays, and thousands of Internet radio playlists, have been devoted to his music, which includes everything from old jazz ballads to 1970s pop music to Mozart sonatas. When it comes to music, Murakami loves it all, except, it seems, the current chart-toppers, but somehow looks for the best in each genre. It can’t simply be Chopin, but Martha Argerich’s Chopin, and here’s why. Music adorns every Murakami work and often stands at the core of it. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, a haunting Franz Liszt piece is Tsukuru’s last link to the piano prodigy in his group of high school friends. While the author’s remarks on music are often perceptive, they also flatter readers seeking validation for their “correct” musical taste, that vital proof of coolness.Even though his books can function as a kind of postmodern, middlebrow style guide, Murakami’s ambitions are clearly higher. He offers what he considers to be a complete, cultured way of life—one filled with nourishing food and deep thoughts about nature, rich in “human connections,” and free from the vanity of grinding personal ambition and the ugliness of politics. He devotes vast attention to the personal tastes, inclinations, and habits of individual men and women, but zero attention to the institutions that, one would imagine, shaped these same people practically from birth: namely, the country they live in, the bureaucracy they have to deal with, the state or private religion they belong or don’t belong to, the public opinion they agree or disagree with—the list goes on. Even relations between parents and children and brothers and sisters are mostly glossed over.Murakami focuses instead on relations of choice. Organizations such as corporations, professional associations, and places of employment are always bland or shadowy, like crime-syndicates in a bad mystery novel. There is no jumble of people making good or bad decisions: it’s almost as if anything larger than a friend group is engineered by nebulous, omnipotent “forces,” whether malevolent or benevolent. There is no doubt that this strikes a chord in contemporary America. Though the Bush years saw heightened patriotism take hold and President Obama flirted with an emphasis on “national service” during his first term, this interest in public responsibility vanished as quickly as it came. For two decades, at the very least, the private has reigned over the public. And in such a society Murakami resonates.We do not, of course, need our writers to be sociologists or political scientists, to say nothing of being pundits. One might further say that Murakami’s focus on “solitary man” rather than social groups and institutions is something he shares with many modern writers. But when Kafka (to whom Murakami is sometimes compared) embeds his characters in a faceless bureaucracy, he is always alive to the effects of bureaucracy on individuals; the tragedy or comedy of the human situation is that the individual cannot ever break free of such allegedly dehumanizing institutions, for those institutions have, in part, made him. Murakami’s characters, by contrast, are, or could be, perfectly whole, if only they could escape those political institutions, which mainly confine and at most depress and irritate. The world is something “over there”—both distinct and reachable from where they are now.Upon receiving the Jerusalem Prize literary award in 2011, Murakami delivered a highly revealing speech:
Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell… And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is “the System.” The system is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own…
As a preface to this, he stated: “Between a high solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” In going to Jerusalem to accept the prestigious literary award, Murakami had at the least not heeded hysterical calls for a cultural boycott of Israel. Still, no one could mistake his remarks for a pro-Israel speech. Delivered around the time of heavy fighting in Gaza, Murakami’s “fragile eggs” evoke the (allegedly) unarmed Palestinians, and Israel, with its tanks and planes, the “System.” Nonetheless, even the pro-Palestinian sentiment is mostly a default. To make a stand for something, you need to call it by a name. Allergic to proper names, Murakami doesn’t mention either Israelis or Palestinians; instead, this Jerusalem speech perfectly encapsulates his fundamentally apolitical thought. The common-sense approach to the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict—as with any other—is to examine the two peoples and their opposing purposes in all their distinctiveness. In place of this, Murakami constructs the impersonal binary of “fragile egg” and the “System,” obliterating political and social differences entirely. Whether this formulation is notably Eastern, I cannot say. But it certainly resonates in our time, where things that are larger than and, in a way, precede individuals, such as families, government, religion, and businesses, can seem to be mere distractions from the important business of self-fulfillment (or for others, the last and absolute refuge from that tiring task). Murakami’s very formalistic picture of humans abstracted from worldly circumstances can be extraordinary seductive. But the more you dig into it, the less you see.Around the time of the publication of the English translation of Kafka on the Shore in 2005, my own interest in Murakami began to wane. I wasn’t exactly tired of the Murakamian device of the “search” for meaning. I was, I thought, on my way to bigger and better books in that regard. But revisiting Murakami ten years later, you see why he appeals to the young. The none-too-hidden aspiration in all his works is the promise of a life without the deadening constraints of politics and business: freedom from bourgeois life, no Marxism necessary. The reward can be self-expression, creative production, better human relations, or even greater knowledge. This is, of course, beguiling. What young person with soul doesn’t, in the first instance, rebel against the homogenizing character of much of contemporary life, at a time when America and the world seem to offer few new frontiers and little if anything to conquer? But Murakami flatters the rebellion instead of educating it, by insisting that we should flee the “System,” that we are each “irreplaceable eggs,” and that you owe nothing to what you leave behind. Murakami ignores the fact that the “System” is no system at all. It is, rather, a jumble of things such as religions, nations, and families that people made or developed, and which are therefore just as much a part of us as our “personal” lives. If, persuaded by Murakami, we think of such institutions as our cold prison cell instead of our living habitat, we might never examine our lives properly at all.Yet in starting with weariness of modern life and the desire for something different, Murakami hits on the right starting point. Murakami 2.0, a Murakami of the future, might use that desire to flee “the world” and create something more truly human as a way to show the paradoxical, stubborn, durable reign of the world over us. For good or ill, we are shaped by our circumstances. A novelist who reveals how this double bind operates today would offer an education in real liberty, not Murakami’s variety, which is quick, easy, and, in the end, rather cheap. We need a fiction that, if not political in itself, recognizes the primacy of the political.