Translated by Philip Gabriel
“That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”
Thirty-six-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki lives a regimented but relatively empty life in Tokyo, where he works as an engineer, building and redesigning train stations. He has no friends, and he is not close to his family, though he does have a new girlfriend, Sara. When he was in high school, Tsukuru was part of a tight-knit group of five best friends. All of their names contained a kanji character that indicated a colour, and they were called by their nicknames: Ao (Blue), Aka (Red), Shiro (White), and Kuro (Black). Only colourless Tsukuru Tazaki went by his real name. Sixteen years ago, Tsukuru was suddenly cut off from his group of friends, without a word of explanation. Since then, Tsukuru has struggled to form human connections, but his desire to maintain a relationship with Sara forces him to finally confront the loss that has been haunting him for so many years.
Poised on the edge of Haruki Murakami’s usual flourishes of magic realism, but never diving deeply in, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a thoughtful novel about belonging and loneliness. Translator Philip Gabriel has conveyed Murakami’s story into English with eloquence and beauty, notwithstanding a few awkward passages where nuances of Japanese language or culture need to be explained in order for the story to make sense. Belonging is an important theme in many of Murakami’s works—in 1Q84, he investigates it through the device of the cult, and in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the Calcutec and the Dreamreader are each set apart from everyone else by the burden of their unique talents—but here, belonging is the central theme and preoccupation of the book.
Tsukuru is a surprisingly interesting character given his relative lack of agency. He isn’t as empty as he thinks he is, but he does lack self-esteem in all areas except perhaps his work, where he recognizes himself as competent, but not outstanding. However, talent is a mixed blessing in this novel, bringing some degree of torment and unhappiness upon those who have it. Talent is frequently exemplified by characters playing the piano, from Tsukuru’s lost friend Shiro, to the mysterious Mr. Green in Haida’s story. Though Tsukuru does not play himself, when he has a dream about playing the piano with great skill, no one in the audience is listening to his performance, illustrating his crippling insecurities. Without a reason for being alienated from his friends, he chooses to assume his lack of personality and distinction was the reason they decided to cut him out.
As usual with Murakami, it is difficult to connect to the female characters, who mostly feel distant and removed. The narrator is male, and all the female characters seem more like women seen through a man’s eyes than like actual people. Also as usual, Murakami is preoccupied with sex, and there are repeated dream sequences in which Tsukuru sleeps with Shiro and Kuro, made uncomfortable by the fact that while Tsukuru ages, the girls never do. However, the scenes, which at first seemed unnecessary, eventually justified their inclusion once the reason for Tsukuru’s ostracization was finally revealed. Despite their unconscious nature, they remain somewhat of a dark spot on Tsukuru’s character, even though they are relevant to the plot.
Although the female characters in general are a bit flat, it is Tsukuru’s visit with Kuro that ultimately proves to be the most satisfying encounter in his journey to reconnect with his old friends. The conversations with the two men, Ao an Aka, are revealing, but a little bit superficial, and they do not really seem to connect with Tsukuru. Neither friend can recall Le mal du pays, the Liszt piece Tsukuru remembers Shiro playing so beautifully, and Tsukuru leaves each encounter unsatisfied. Kuro, however, remembers the piece, and listens to it often, though she prefers a different recording than Tsukuru. His conversation with Kuro proves to be the most cathartic moment in the story, but the conclusion unravels from there.
This cathartic encounter seems set to move the novel towards a satisfying conclusion, but the story remained incomplete in two respects. First, though Tsukuru realizes that losing touch with his college friend Haida is also part of his past he needs to deal with, he doesn’t try to find Haida, and his friend is not mentioned again. Haida (Grey) played a more minor role in Tsukuru’s life than his four high school friends, but the loss of his friendship compounded the difficulties created by the first loss. Rather than taking his future into his own hands, Tsukuru decides to let Sara’s choice determine whether or not he will move forward, and in the end, we are not even privy to her decision. Tsukuru’s loneliness and disconnection are deserving of empathy, but his inability to finally seize the moment and move forward, with or without Sara, undermines the impact of his encounter with Kuro.