When Tsukuru first hears Haida’s recording of Franz Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays,’ from the Years of Pilgrimage suite ‘Year 1: Switzerland,” it is described as “a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations” (68). Tsukuru asks Haida about it. Haida says, ‘Le mal du pays’ is French and is “usually translated ‘homesickness,’ or ‘melancholy’, or as precise a translation as can be managed ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape’” (69). Tsukuru adds that the piece evokes “a calm sadness without being sentimental.” This section describes Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. Murakami transcribes a quiet sorrowful piece replete with tranquil variations.*
By Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
In High School Tsukuru Tazaki used to be part of a group comprised of five. He was one of three boys and the only of the five whose name did not include a color. The latter wasn’t the only thing to make him different, but the balance had already been struck. Like the trait that decides 5 fingers make the most harmonious human hand, the five young people found a miraculous society within and between themselves. But perhaps what they had was not as true a harmony as first believed (322).
“I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity. Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.” […] “An empty vessel. A colorless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding. Maybe that sort of person was necessary to the group.” (179).
Moving away for college shouldn’t have changed things as dramatically as it had, yet suddenly Tsukuru was shut out. It is a long sixteen years later that Tsukuru is tasked with finding out why. Murakami writes a deeply compelling mystery—in Tsukuru Tazaki.
The mystery as to what Tsukuru could have done and how all might finally find resolution is the spine and is much like rails drawing the reader along, yet Murakami is building a station with Tsukuru Tazaki that is rife with such beautiful complexity the “colorless” becomes riveting. Murakami must take pleasure in his ability to move readers through the most ordinary sequences of life in pursuit of the most poetic; and he uses the most ordinary of characters to do it.
The novel is one of those places where the figurative can be rendered quite literally, and unreality resides in simultaneity with reality. It is the perfect space, other than the dreaming and memory, for Murakami to explore his preoccupations with the waking, conscious existence of liminal spaces. Can a desire become strong enough to knock on a door an impossible number of miles away? Are evil spirits merely psychic projections? Can a mild-mannered handsome boy harbor a violent, ugly aspect and not recall it? Can he harbor a intimate desire so deep, he could mistake the real for a fantasy (and vice versa)?
Tsukuru Tazaki learns that all number of paradoxes exist, some of which are comforting, others disturbing. We can die and be regenerated inside these vessels that refuse to pass away. A musical score can transport the most vivid recollections into the present, even the presence of persons long lost (258). And we wonder at whether differences between our existence and absences are substantial enough to matter.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki also understands that some explanations are never found, sorrows never redeemed, conflicts never resolved, and there are apologies made that shouldn’t satisfy forgiveness but will—because we cling to life, stupidly, dangerously, and with a profound love for it. A few readers who are going to hate this book.
Murakami can be infuriating in the way he allows characters and storylines to drift off into inexplicable disappearance. But none of it is wasted in its contribution to the whole. His novels are annoyingly coherent. The rewards just come in unexpected ways—which is a reward in and of itself.
Murakami’s genius is in that ending. He draws us out of another one of Tsukuru’s fugue-like states, this one listing among his lovely self-reflections, when he perches us once more on that brink between life and death. Murakami presents us with a character no one should have ever doubted, not even Tsukuru himself. It is quite brutal. It is perfect.
*Here is one variation, when Tsukuru is contemplating his self-characterization of an empty vessel.
“Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing inside of me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow.” (258)
When Natalya was reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, she found ‘Le mal du pays’ and played it for us. You’ll want to do the same.
of note: a Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) read, there is mystery, melancholy, and allusions to devilry.