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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage'

August 19, 2014
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Murakami's latest a powerful epic of intimacy

I have a history of being weirdly obstinate with regards to book recommendations. If one or two people tell me I should read a book, I'll strongly consider checking it out particularly if they are people whose opinions that I trust. But if a dozen more people recommend that same book before I have a chance to get to it, I will refuse. It's as if I'm a petulant toddler, adopting a 'you're not the boss of what I read' attitude.

And that's why I had never read a book by Haruki Murakami.

So many people smart people, well-read people have told me that I must check out Murakami's work. Yet for a long time and for no good reason I resisted. However, my inner three-year-old might be maturing just a little, because I picked up 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' (Knopf; $25.95).

When we meet Tsukuru Tazaki, he's a 20-year-old college student in Tokyo. He is also seriously contemplating his own death. This dark consideration springs from the utter and unexpected implosion of his most valued friendships he and four others formed a tightly-knit group during their high school days. Their interpersonal dynamic had an exquisite synergy that made the entire quintet feel beautifully unique.

And then, one day, Tsukuru was simplycut out. His four best friends in the world simply told him he was no longer wanted. No explanation was offered; he was simply told to go away. So he did.

Sixteen years later, Tsukuru is an engineer living in Tokyo. He's working for a company that restores and renovates train stations. It's a dream job of sorts; young Tsukuru was always fascinated by train stations and went to college in Tokyo specifically to study under a renowned teacher of station design. And yetthere's an absence. He can't necessarily explain it, but it is undeniable.

Tsukuru's girlfriend Sara posits that perhaps the wound of that long ago rejection continues to fester. With her not-so-subtle prodding, he finally decides to reinvestigate that time long past. He embarks on a quest to discover just what he lost those many years ago, why he lost itand what he may stand to gain from finally putting it behind him.

My understanding was that much of Murakami's work has connections to realms metaphysical and/or supernatural. But while that is apparently an accurate appraisal, it doesn't necessarily apply to everything he does. It certainly doesn't apply here.

Instead, what we get is a thoughtfully meandering deconstruction on the nature of interpersonal relationships and the differences between our own self-perception and how others perceive us. Tsukuru views himself as an empty vessel, blank and uninteresting. But as we learn more about him - through memory and through his eventual attempts at forward motion it becomes clear that he is not the person he sees in the mirror. Nor is he the person that is reflected in the eyes of others. He like all of us is somewhere in-between.

Tsukuru is a man adrift, trapped between a present rendered in shades of gray and a past that is somehow both blurred and all too vivid. In searching for some truth that might serve as an anchor, he is revealed as a man whose emotional scar tissue is so old, so deeply buried, that it can no longer be seenonly felt.

While there's an awkwardness to some of Murakami's prose there's a good deal of repetition, for instance, as well as some clumsy turns of phrase that occasional clunkiness only serves to point up the overall quality of understated elegance that his writing possesses. There are lengthy stretches that are flat-out enthralling, leaving the reader unwilling (and unable) to turn away before turning the page.

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' may not have been the best choice to break my self-imposed boycott of all things Murakami - I have no frame of reference, so who knows? but what I can say is that once I started reading the triumphantly sad tale of Tsukuru Tazaki, I did not stop until I reached its conclusion. There are few higher praises to give.

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