Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

"One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility linked to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony."

While immersed in the world of PhD research, any attempt to read outside of this is usually characterised by choice of the weirdest and most eccentric books. Two years, and many books later, it has become clear that no novels fit this mould quite like those of sensational Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. Defying popular favouritism of Western literature, Murakami has become one of the most popular and celebrated authors on the planet. Pick up any of his many novels (except, perhaps, for The Strange Library that defied even my taste for the most obscure stories) and it will become immediately apparent why Murakami has achieved this status. Understandably then, I was ridiculously excited at the release of the English translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

"Jealousy - at least as he understood it from his dream - was the most hopeless prison in the world. Jealousy was not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily, locked the door, and threw away the key. And not another soul in the world knew he was locked inside. Of course if he wanted to escape he could do so. The prison, was after all, his own heart. But he couldn't make that decision. His heart was as hard as a stone wall. This was the very essence of jealousy."

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage tells the story of its middle-aged protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, as he attempts to grapple with a life-changing series of events from his youth. Now working as a train station designer and living -  by outside appearances - an ordinary life, Tsukuru remains haunted by the moment, 16 years prior, when his four best friends declared that they never again wanted to talk to or see him. With no explanation for this sudden decision and paralysed by despair, Tsukuru faces death as he questions why to continue living. He gradually pulls himself from this stupor and begins the process of rebuilding. But upon meeting and falling in love with a woman over a decade after these events, it becomes clear that Tsukuru will be unable to move forward with his life until he faces down the demons from his past. So begins Tsukuru's pilgrimage to meet with his old friends, discover the reasons for his sudden abandonment, and attempt to regain something lost...

This novel has much to recommend it and displays many of the stylistic nuances that have come to define Murakami's work. As with 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore, dreams are a prevalent theme throughout, leaving the reader disconcertingly unsure as to the reality versus unreality of the plot. This is something that readers of Murakami know well - his novels are renowned for the way in which they blur the realities that he depicts and with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the reader certainly has to be prepared for significant confusion. While this sounds unappealing, the genius of Murakami is how he manages to make confusion and uncertainty feel purposeful - you, as the reader, are not supposed to know where 'reality' begins and ends. Indeed, his characters often have similar trouble telling what is reality and what is not. The way that Murakami weaves his plot means that really the only thing a reader must bring to the table is an ability to suspend belief and relinquish themselves to the magic.

"Everything has boundaries. The same holds true with thought. You shouldn't fear boundaries, but you should not be afraid of destroying them. That's what it most important if you want to be free: respect for and exasperation with boundaries."

What arguably separates this novel from Murakami's previous works is the humanity of the plot. I've always felt that Murakami's books are brilliant explorations of the human condition - a fact that comes about through his willingness to push the boundaries of reality. However, something about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki made it feel far more human to me that the other works that I've read. The premise of the plot is the emotional turmoil thrust upon Tsukuru by his sudden abandonment. The book is focussed on his attempts to understand and overcome the reasons why this experience was forced upon him. While Tsukuru's experience is extreme, I think the base emotions are ones that we can all relate to - loneliness, despair, confusion, fear. And somehow Tsukuru's experience translates in a way that strikes a chord with all of these. I found myself totally engrossed from beginning to end of the novel and personally invested in his pilgrimage through the past.

Murakami's books are undoubtedly something of a cult sensation. Their very particular style and willingness to force unreality on the reader obviously ensure that Murakami will not be for everyone. But his is a genius that will not be found elsewhere and, more than any other author, Murakami's books are undoubtedly a walk through the machinations of his mind. So, if you feel prepared to leave reality at the door, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is for you - just trust Murakami's ability to pull you back into the real world, when you feel that return is unlikely.


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