Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami
The first book I read in this New Year was picked by selecting one the top-20 books of 2014 list from the New York Times, a book called “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami. I have never read any of Murakami’s books before and to confess the truth the first time I ever heard of him was when I noticed his name on the top-20 list. The title was the thing which intrigued me first as it looked to be a bizarre translation of what must have been a perfectly normal Japanese title- as is often the cases with Indian novels whose English translators come out with laugh-worthy titles. But to my surprise as I read through the book I discovered that the title perfectly fit the mood of the book and the protagonist Tsukuru Tazaki indeed undertakes the epic journey of his life to discover why he is the only one left colorless among all his colorful friends.
The story is indeed all about friendship and how our friends leave a deep mark on our psyche- either for good or bad. The hero of the novel who also doubles up as the narrator – Tsukuru Tazaki is introduced to us as an engineer in his late 30’s working for a railway company and living alone in Tokyo city. After a series of failed relationships which don’t progress beyond a certain point and a crisis point in his newest relationship- a complete absence to achieve erection with his latest girlfriend- she advises him to face the demons of his past first- as it seems all his problems in bed stem from emotional issues unsolved and buried inside his psyche. She tells him that he can suppress his memories with a tight lid, but the history remains underneath and he has to face up to the truth one day or the other as that alone will give him a clue as to why he avoids any deep emotional intimacy with anyone.
And then Tazaki as he prefers to be known opens up about is past- about how he once was in a group of 5 friends in school- 2 girls and 2 boys- who all had nicknames based on different colors while he alone was called colorless by the group because of his amiability and tendency to go along with the collective decisions instead of taking a firm stand on anything. But surprisingly he alone has the courage to apply to Tokyo university after finishing school while the rest of the group join college at their hometown preferring to stay in the same locale and continue their friendship. After a year or so of college when Tazaki returns to his hometown for the vacation and calls up his friends he is devastated to learn that they have made a joint decision to cut him off and avoid him altogether. After failing to talk any single one of them, he gives up and returns to Tokyo where he goes into a deep depression and suicidal tendencies for almost six months till he makes a partial recovery and decides to concentrate on his studies. But the scar of being excluded from his once close friends makes him reject the idea of anymore deep friendships and over a twenty year period of his life- he stays alone with never once opening his heart to anyone.
So by the middle of the book, Tazaki decides to find out the truth of why he was excluded from the group and after tracing his former friends he visits them one by one after twenty years – to learn the reason for his sudden banishment from the once tightly knit group. To his shock he learns form his friends that one of the girls in the group – Shiro (white) – had claimed that he had violently raped her when she visited him in Tokyo at his university and that is the reason his other four friends had decided never to see him or talk to him again in their lives. When he vehemently protests his innocence of the crime, each one of his friends confesses to him now -20 years later- that they always felt that Shiro was lying and they didn’t believe he was capable of such a thing, but they had lacked the guts to say it out in front of the group when the group as a whole had made the decision. This strange confession consoles him even if it comes twenty years too late.
In the final few chapter’s Tazaki journey gives him a lot of issues to ponder about and he slowly starts seeing himself as more than the “colorless” person he had always imagined himself to be. When Tazaki on his final quest of the pilgrimage goes to Finland to meet the only girl left from their group, his accuser Shiro having died earlier, the other girl Eri (black) says she knew even then that Shiro was lying about Tazaki and when she had to make the crucial decision whom to believe and whom to support, she had felt that Tazaki was the strongest person among all the group and so had decided he could survive alone cut off from the group while the other girl Shiro would have collapsed into mental disease and hence she had gone along with the cold blooded decision to cut him off from the group. This confession gives him a new insight into the way he had always viewed himself and he returns to Japan a wiser and bolder man.
That colorless Tsukuru Tazaki the man who always thought himself as the victim of the capriciousness of his friends whims understands that he was the sole person they always though to be stronger than the entire group- this head turning revelation of the last chapter shows not only the protagonist but even ourselves how much of a wrong self view we carry about ourselves all our lives. When we assume that we are useless and good for nothing or are easily despondent- they are others out there who envy us for our strength, admire us for our gifts and appreciate our position in the world. All it takes for us to appreciate out true position in the world is to look at us, really look at ourselves, through the eyes of others- the answer will surprise us. So the book ends with Tazaki having conquered his emotional demons and regained his erection, calling up his new girlfriend and waiting for her to come back to him– confident for once of trusting others without fear of betrayal.
This is my second Japanese book- other than the 5 rings of miyomoto musashahi which I studied for its martial arts content and I was surprised by the depth of its insightfulness and the universality of its theme. Somehow, something in the book resonated within me and I couldn’t put it down till I had finished it in one go. I think I am going to read more of Haruki Murakami in the future and I do hope dear reader you will too.