Saturday, 17 October 2015

My thoughts on Murakami's "Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage"

Originally posted here.

This is not so much a review as it is about the thoughts that this book left me with. A book, by definition for many readers (including myself), has to give its audience something. If it doesn't, it has failed in its purpose. This 'something' is entirely subjective. I've mostly defined my reading experience by fairly standard parameters- quality of language, strength of characterisation and depth of narration. I've made very few exceptions in my reading journey so far to ignore any of these parameters in favour of the others. And the more I continue to read, the more I'm convinced that an experience with a book must be a surprise. The sheer suspense of what the book in your hand is going to deliver, while giving it the chance it deserves without any preconceived limitations.

Now that I've managed to transcribe a few of the many thoughts running in my mind, I shall start with the book. I received my copy as a gift from one of my summer research students. A year ago, we were discussing books over lunch when Murakami came up and I let it be known that he was still unvisited territory. Much has been heard about "1Q84" and "Norwegian wood" and "Kafka by the shore", but to me they were mere titles. I have heard Murakami's name being mentioned either with hushed reverence or the deepest platitude. I was fascinated when I was told about the prominent featuring of music as part of the plot in Murakami's books, and it was reason enough for me to want to try one. Predictably, I bought "1Q84" from the bookstore later that week but to this day, it has been sleeping in my bookshelf. My very first Murakami was destined to be this "Thank you" gift. And have I enjoyed it, like I haven't any book read in the recent past!

"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki" is an ordinary man approaching the weariness of middle age. He is a railroad station engineer, with a job involving his childhood passion- trains. He lives alone in a small apartment in Tokyo, with an almost non-existent social life, having come to terms with the reticence. He doesn't have friends, has had four serious girlfriends over the span of a decade and has a past that haunts him in ways that he has not realised himself. The shadow of his past is rather big, comprising of four friends who were his closest companions in school at Nagoya. These five youngsters- three boys and two girls- are inseparable, living their lives in tune with each other and completing each other as a wholesome unit. Tsukuru Tazaki has one nagging feeling in this almost perfect world- he is the colourless person in this circle of friends with colours in their surnames. Akamatsu/ Aka ('red')is the modest yet volcanic academic destined for an intellectual future; Oumi/Ao (blue) is the popular and confident rugby player. Shirane /Shiro (white) is a beautiful and accomplished pianist, who is never too comfortable in her own skin. Almost always in her shadow is Kurane/ Kuro (black)- funny and artistic in her own way. In this group with established identities, Tsukuru finds himself the odd one, seemingly talentless and uninteresting in everything he does. This self- imposed doubt is not shown remotely by his friends, who adore him, and insist on doing everything together as a group.

The first signs of fracture emerge when Tsukuru becomes the first person to leave Nagoya to pursue his engineering studies in Tokyo. While the rest of the group continue functioning in unity at Nagoya, they never allow Tsukuru to feel cut-off, always ready to welcome him home during his study breaks. Tsukuru gets on with a largely unchanged life, until one day he is asked by his friends to never speak with or meet them again. It is a clinical procedure with no questions asked and no answers given. The emotional blow that this experience delivers pushes Tsukuru to the verge of death and he loses interest in his life. For sixteen years, he mechanically goes about life with an emotional distance from people and the hope that it will prevent him from getting hurt again. The wound remains closed but pulses with infection periodically. Until one day, he is persuaded to undertake a 'pilgrimage' to get his questions answered and seek closure.

This book was a revelation to me. I realised that I did not care too much about the lack of a tangible ending here. The story is about a man filled with questions. His life has always revolved around them, in a way even been pushed forward by his unresolved past. To demand a clean ending felt unfaithful to the feeling that Murakami had pent up in this book. In many ways, the story felt as real to me as it could get. I found myself travelling to Nagoya, Tokyo and Finland with Tsukuru, experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, quiet resignation, confusion and finally unexpected calm. The resilience of life and our ability to carry on is brought out wonderfully through Murakami's words. He leaves us with an open ending to the story- and I'm led to understand that many of his works carry that trademark stamp of his- but provides answers to so many questions that plague the mind on a day-to-day basis. The impact that people have on us is so deep that we don't realise it until after they are gone. And when they are, we realise that a part of us has gone with them, and it is almost impossible for us to be the same person again. The profundity in this book may not be novel, but it was certainly conveyed in very elegant words which caught my attention.

As I'm typing this unusually long post, I'm listening to "Le mal du pays", which is a recurring theme in the book. The mood of the song perfectly captures the mood of the book. It is a deeply personal experience and I will not be surprised to hear people saying they find it 'over-rated and simplistic'. To each his own. But for me, the last three days were spent devouring the pages in suspense and eagerness. Everything from the cover to the typeface caught my eye. This book was perfect in its own way, right down to the smallest detail.

The last page of the book ends in lines that I find poignant and worth remembering. At some point of time in our lives, all of us walk down a road where dreams and aspirations are mostly cast away to the winds, so much so that one cannot recognise the changes that have come with harsh lessons. We push onward in search of the silver lining.
"We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something- with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish."


(P.S: I did not dare to post this here because this post doesn't qualify as an 'on-the-go' book review.)