An ecstatic reading of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

North American cover of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
North American cover of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage


“And you’ll return to real life. You need to live it to the fullest. No matter how shallow and dull things might get, this life is worth living. I guarantee it.”

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is ostensibly an account of a young man longing for an explanation of his past.  Tsukuru Tazaki, the 36-year-old title character, searches for the reason that he was ostracized by his friends sixteen years earlier.  There is a seemingly uncomplicated and almost flat unfolding of purpose in the events that make up Tsukuru’s inquiry; however, the lean textures of his pilgrimage also express sublime emotions that reveal a way of understanding the world by engaging mood.  The placing of value on mood as a legitimate aesthetic emotion, as opposed to relying solely on empirical facts, is in the same vein as the Romantic artists who embraced melancholy.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a melancholic novel, but it is from the ache of melancholy that possibility grows.  The pilgrimage is about Tsukuru’s attempts to attune himself with mood in way that will permit him to freely negotiate a future that does not rely exclusively on facts, but blooms in the ecstatic possibilities of emotion.

Japanese cover of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Japanese cover of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

The first hint that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a novel about mood can be found in the North American cover.  The colour bars and map displayed in flat juxtaposition to the gray background are rendered in the style of Colour Field Painting.  The connection to the style is even more direct on the Japanese cover, which reproduces Morris Louis’s Pillar of Fire (1961).  Colour Field Painting is a New York style of Abstract Expressionism that depicts huge, flat fields of solid colour.  The larger-than-life paintings encroach on the spectator’s world, especially when seen up close, as there is not a single point-of-reference where the background and foreground can be distinguished.  The style presents fields as oppose to a traditional window on the world.  The artist’s goal is to invoke an emotional experience.  You can see examples of this style in Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) and Mark Rothko’s No. 16 (1957) at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.  If we take our point-of-departure from the cover, this is not a novel that provides a window onto the protagonist’s perspective of things, but it is an invitation to empathize with his melancholic mood and his quest to become attuned to that mood in a way that brings meaning to the world.

“Maybe I am fated to always be alone, Tsukuru found himself thinking. People came to him, but in the end they always left.”

Tsukuru spent his youth with four close friends in the town of Nagoya during the early 1990s.  Although the crew is “like five fingers of a glove,” Tsukuru is somewhat different because, unlike his friends whose surnames each contain the name of a colour, his surname, Tazaki, means “to build”.  His surname is colourless.  The boys are Kei Akamatsu, who is Aka (Red) and Yoshio Oumi, who is Ao (Blue).  The girls are Yuzuki Shirane, who is Shiro (White) and Eri Kurono, who is Kuro (Black).  Tsukuru leaves Nagoya after High School to study in Tokyo.  He wants to pursue his childhood fascination with trains by becoming a train station designer.  He wants to become the builder his moniker suggests.  During his second year in college his friends cut off all relations with him without any explanation.  The deeply disturbing fracture makes him feel like “an empty person, lacking in color and identity” and he even has suicidal tendencies, like one who has “fallen into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void.”  When the event is recounted to Tsukuru’s girlfriend Sara Kimoto sixteen years after it happened, she proposes that it has caused his emotions to atrophy.  If he is to have any personal growth or attain progress in their relationship, she suggests, he will have to discover what was at the root of his rejection.

In some ways this straightforward approach to fix the problem unfolds like detective pulp fiction.  The implication is that Tsukuru’s pilgrimage will establish facts about a given point in time that will, in turn, cultivate closure in a happy ending realized in a logical understanding of things.  The path to uncover the mystery of Tsukuru’s being cut off from the Pillar of Fire is surprisingly uncomplicated.  Sara utilizes the speed and availability of information on Google and Facebook to immediately track down the friends.  Tsukuru claims that he cannot look them up because he does not have an Internet account, but this reasoning seems shallow.  He could have looked them up at any point.  Something other than a lack of technology has held him back.  Tsukuru is inexorably tied to a technological sense of time through his profession as a train station designer.  Train stations are the original dwelling place of the modern sense of time.  They are the place where clocks across the landscape were first synchronized to increase efficiency by putting the world on a unified schedule.  (Incidentally, it was in figuring out how to synchronize train station clocks that inspired Albert Einstein to think about his theory of relativity.)  It this sense of modern technological time that he has to step out of to begin his true pilgrimage.  The detective work of locating the friends and finding out what happened—that Tzukuru has been falsely accused of raping one of his friends who has since passed away—does not turn out to be any kind of detective work at all.  Most importantly, the information does nothing to cure his pain and suffering.  The attempt to recast the Pillar of Fire in terms of an event leaves Tsukuru and the reader in the cold.  In the same way that Tsukuru must reach beyond the event and build a connection to the world of mood and emotion, the reader is also forced to either withdraw from a shallow story or enter it passionately, in a way that is attuned to the mood expressed in the pilgrimage’s field of colours.

“Most people see Liszt’s piano music as more superficial, and technical. Of course, he has some tricky pieces, but if you listen very carefully […] you discover a depth to it you don’t notice at first.  Most of the time it’s hidden behind all these embellishments.”

One “field of colour” in the novel that calls Tsukuru out of technological time is Franz Liszt’s Romantic piano piece Années de pèlerinage, from which the novel’s title takes its cue.  Tsukuru’s university friend Haida, whose name contains the colour gray, reintroduces him to this same piece that his friend Shiro played on the piano in his youth.  The piano piece was written in the first half of the 19th Century.  Romantic artists at the time valued intense emotion as a source of aesthetic experience and accentuated emotions such as dread, horror, and awe in light of the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature.  Tsukuru and Haida form a close bond which resonates in Haida’s emphasis of Le mal du pays in the first suite, Première année: Suisse.  The piece expresses the intense melancholic ache of homesickness that Haida describes as “a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.”  It becomes more than just homesickness.   In discussing Shiro’s playing of the piece, Haida proclaims that Tsukuru’s description of it having a “calm sadness” must mean that “she must have played it well.” Haida says that “it’s hard to get the expression right …  the way you use the pedal makes all the difference, and can change the entire character of the piece.”  It is emotion that gives life to the piece and the passionate suite does touch Tsukuru’s emotions.   They are expressed in a shocking dream in which the eros of friendship is realized as sexual desire.   The erotic dream dispenses with linear time by conflating a sexual encounter that begins with Shiro and Kuro into one with Haida just before the climax.  Tsukuru is left wondering if the dream is real.  He is unable to resolve the issue by rooting out facts because Haida disappears, leaving only his copy of Années de pèlerinage.  Although Tsukuru is left speculating what the dream means, including wondering if he is bisexual, the fundamental question is not one of psychology, but one that understands friendship as something that cannot be calibrated.  It is a challenging expression of mood.  Tsukuru, however, cannot attune himself to this kind of intense emotion at this point in his life.  The loss of a relationships with friends leaves him despondent and continues to weigh him down.

“Each individual has their own unique color, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight. I’m able to see those colors clearly.”

The final emotional “colour field” that I will look at concerns comportment towards death as it arises as an aspect of being attuned to mood.  In a story-within-a-story, Haida relates his father’s account of meeting Tokyo jazz pianist Midorikawa.  Haida offers to tell the story late one evening when the boys have been sitting around discussing death.  Although the story is said to be events that actually occurred involving Haida’s father, it is told in a dreamy and confusing fashion in which reality and time seems to shift.  Tsukuru is associated with the synchronization of linear time in the building of train stations; however, in the case of this Romantic tale, he is unable to separate particular people and events in time.   It is difficult to say exactly who the perspective is taken from, but the narration states that Haida and his father “began to overlap in Tsukuru’s mind.”  In this perplexing atmosphere where “the two distinct temporalities had blended into one,” we find out about the magic qualities of a person who can see colours associated with people, but it comes with a special understanding of or attitude toward death.  Midorowaka is a sensitive musician who gives a private performance of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight to Haida’s father.   It is a song that expresses the ache of midnight memories of an absent lover.  He is a sensitive musician who brings passion to his rendition of the most interpreted and melancholic jazz standard there is.  Perhaps it is his last performance of the piece as Midorokawa says he only has a month to live.  Although he says death can be temporarily avoided by transferring a “death token” to another person, he has decided he would like to “die as soon as possible.”  Accepting the death token not only gives one the power to see colours but it also presents the ability to expand ones consciousness:

“You’re able to push open what Aldous Huxley calls ‘the doors of perception.’ Your perception becomes pure and unadulterated. Everything around you becomes clear, like the fog lifting. You have an omniscient view of the world and see things you’ve never seen before.”

For a novel that does not provide any kind of explicit epiphany for the protagonist, Tsukuru is brought into a kind of ecstatic dream presence that blends the past into the present and calls forth an individual and inevitable death that is particular and finite.  It is a rejection of the video-game aspiration to extend life without end or limit.   A kind of dread arises out of this which is the realization that no one is really at home in the world.  Homesickness as a longing memory becomes more than a sentimentality for the past.  We are invited to become open to the fog lifting to uncover hidden colours.  Like Tsukuru, we are offered access to an omniscient view to reveal things.  More importantly, we learn that the things that are hidden can only be approached by way of emotion, in ecstasy.

It is difficult to say exactly where Tzukuru stands by the end of the novel, but can we say that the meaning of a spiritual pilgrimage is revealed in appeals to ecstasy.  We must interpret Pillar of Fire, Le mal du pays, ‘Round Midnight, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by way of our own attunement, passionately clutching our own death token.

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