When Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage was released in his native country of Japan, it sold a million copies in its first week. That number is astronomical, especially here in the states, where Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices had a “strong” opening week with only about 100,000 books sold. Calling Murakami a “universally respected author” or even a “paragon of literature” is no longer apt. The man is a cultural force unto himself.
His 2009 novel, 1Q84, was considered to be his magnum opus, a sprawling (sometimes overly so) novel about covert sects, multiple dimensions, and love that pulls people back into each other’s orbit. It was a giant tome to be added to dozens of people’s lists of “long books I’d like to read” alongside Ulysses and Infinite Jest. 1Q84 is a doozy, and certainly not what everyone hoped, but it proved that releasing a book that wasn’t part of the Harry Potter series still could be an event. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki’s release was an event in Japan, which is fitting, since the novel is Murakami’s best work in two decades.
Content to drift through life, thirtysomething Tsukuru Tazaki lives in Tokyo with no purpose beyond his job of designing train stations. When a new girlfriend, Sara, probes him about the past, he begins to reexamine his life. After his second year of college, his close high school friends cut all ties with him without explanation, which lead Tsukuru into a deep depression and solitary existence. A decade and a half later, Sara encourages him to reconnect with his old friends to find out what really happened. In typical Murakami fashion, the exploration of the past is both physical and spiritual, with Tsukuru flying across the world as well as re-inhabiting old fantasies that hold peculiar powers.
If the summary sounds familiar, it should. Murakami is not a writer of great range. He has his peccadillos, and they come out in full force in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. But while his writerly tics may sometimes feel trite, here the staples of his work (stories within stories, sexual perversity, mysteries without real answers) all come together to form a beautiful whole. Exasperating as the denouements of Kafka On The Shore and 1Q84 were with their lack of explanations, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki strongly makes the case that the enigmas Murakami presents are not what’s interesting about his stories. He has a hyperactive imagination, bending and warping narratives that otherwise feel very human. The danger is that he sometimes loses that human element. Luckily Tsukuru remains firmly at the center of the novel named for him, and his growth is, ultimately, what is at stake.
To that end, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki may be Murakami’s most human novel yet. Most scenes are dialogues between characters, with the major plot points turning on what long-lost friends have to say, rather than great shifts in the universe. Recently, his works have plumbed questions of good and evil, large-scale movements, and multiple dimensions. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki has its share of weird stuff happening, but it’s all ancillary. Even without the magical realism Murakami is so well known for, the book would remain whole and moving. It’s a quiet novel, in that sense, without much of the bombast of his latter work. But it’s quiet in the same way Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is, leaving the reader with that nostalgic feeling one gets when putting down a truly captivating story. If any work of Murakami’s has the chance to win over readers who were put off by 1Q84 and Kakfa On The Shore, this is it.