Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Author Haruki Murakami is a rock star in Japan, where his books—including this one—are instant bestsellers. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage isn’t quite as catchy a title as, say, IQ84, but then, at this point, Murakami can name his book Blah Blah Blah and it wouldn’t affect sales.

The basis for the story is very simple. In high school, Tsukuru had four dear friends with whom he formed an extremely tight-knit group. After high school, Tsukuru headed to college in Tokyo, but when he returned to hometown for a break during his sophomore year, these very close friends “announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask.”

Tsukuru was understandably confused, then devastated, and Murakami details the excruciating after-effects of being inexplicably declared persona non grata. The emotions are searing. We see Tsukuru’s shaky mental state and watch him make subsequent choices, mostly poor, that flow directly from his broken heart.

After college, Tsukuru works for a railway company designing stations. He struggles with his few personal relationships until, at age 36, he meets Sara, who draws him out and encourages him to track down his former friends to finally find out why they had so cruelly abandoned him.

The plot is as plain as that. The writing, though, has a dreamy quality that made me wish that I could read the book in the original Japanese. Translated into English, the metaphors and wordplay Murakami uses need to be explained in detail; I suspect that the subtlety of reading it in the original may create a more seamless experience. Color is an obvious theme, as each of Tsukuru’s high-school friends has a last name that involves a color, and their nicknames become those colors: The boys are Red and Blue, the girls are White and Black. Only Tsukuru, as the title reminds us, is colorless. But those of us who are reading a translation only know this because the translation spells it out in great detail.

There was much in the story that made me uncomfortable, not least of which was the answer to the central mystery. I also found Tsukuru to be a difficult character to connect with, despite my sympathy for his pain. Then there were the rather odd hallucinogenic scenes thrown into the mix. I came away wondering whether I should blame the story for my discomfort, or the translation, or maybe both. But because I couldn’t read the book the way the author intended me to, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I found myself thinking about Tsukuru long after I’d finished the book– a sign that the story had resonated. The tale made me consider how our friends can define us—after all, would Tsukuru be “colorless” in a group that was not defined by color? It also made me think about how our unwillingness to put ourselves out there socially in the short term—why, oh why, didn’t Tsukuru simply ask what had caused his banishment in the first place?—can lead to unnecessary long-term pain and, yes, pilgrimage.

Mostly, the book made me think about translations of various types, and how they affect our interactions with art, with history, with each other. The limits of translation are clear in a book like this, where so much of the effect seems to depend on wordplay in another language. The author’s intentions fade a bit without the sharpness of the original Japanese. But in the end, this simple tale about a simple man with a broken heart depicts the joy, suffering, and color that friends can bring to one other, and makes it worth the reader’s effort to become acquainted with Tsukuru and his colorful, colorless life.

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