Whenever I try to explain Haruki Murakami books to someone who hasn’t read any before, I tend to sum them up as “contemporary Japanese stories with a lot of weird dream sex”. Is this a fair description of a typical Haruki Murakami book? Based on the couple of books of his I’ve read, which have involved incest, seducing a forty year old piano teacher, and a man having sex with one woman in a dream but impregnating another, yes! A typical Murakami novel makes you question what’s real and what’s the dream. They’re certainly weird but I’ve generally enjoyed his novels, even if they leave a lot unanswered at the end.
So, when I bought Haruki Murakami’s ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’, I had high hopes. Were they met? Well, no. In fact, I was bored for most of the story. I almost didn’t review this book because I really don’t like posting reviews where I’m more negative than positive. Plus, this is the prolific Haruki Murakami, so I’d better have a good reason for not liking this book – right?
The premise of the book is intriguing and, knowing it is a Murakami work, it’s fair to assume that nothing is what is seems. The book opens with the main character, Tsukuru Tazaki, looking back on his teenage years and his four close friends who suddenly cut off all contact with him with no explanation. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning ‘red pine’, and Oumi, ‘blue sea’, while the girls’ names were Shirane, ‘white root’, and Kurono, ‘black field’. Tazaki was the only last name with no colour in it.
What has prompted him to look back on this event in his thirties? The woman he is dating, Sara, can’t have sex with him because she feels he is elsewhere and has unresolved issues. So, Tazaki travels back to his home in Nagoya to find out. After a bit more reading, you learn that Tsukuru spent a long time contemplating suicide and changed beyond all recognition in the year after his friends dumped him. Then, after he recovers and makes one friend at university in Tokyo, he has a weird sexual dream about him and the friend also suddenly leaves him without explanation. My first thought was why on earth is this guy just “oh, OK, my best friends don’t want to see me ever again but I never questioned why, then I thought about killing myself but never wondered if the two were connected, then the only friend I made also suddenly abandoned me. That’s just the way it is. Oh, well”.
Now, I appreciate that Tazaki isn’t meant to be ‘normal’ but, having read a few Murakami books, this ‘emotionless man with strange sexual fantasies who doesn’t question anything’ seems to appear in every one of his books. “I’m having an affair with my wife and know it’s wrong but, oh, well” or “I had sex with one woman in a dream but another one somehow got pregnant? Oh, well.” There’s a difference between a character who you generally believe cannot connect with the real world and him being almost indistinguishable from the author’s other main characters.
Alright, so I’m not keen on the main character and narrator but what about the story itself? Is it classic weird and gripping Murakami? Well, it’s certainly weird but I was not at all gripped. I’d go far as saying that, if I hadn’t read any Murakami before, I’d probably have put it down. There is so much exposition in the first fifty or so pages, where Tazaki simply describes his friends’ personalities and how he met Sara. When the story moves on to Tazaki’s fact-finding mission, I simply wasn’t intrigued enough by the story. It was an interesting mystery, yes, but it really lacked any of the ‘what is real?’ element that I love about Murakami books. There is a juicy development with one of Tazaki’s friends halfway through, which I can’t elaborate on without massively ruining the plot, but it is not at all resolved and I actually wondered whether Murakami had even decided what had happened and decided not to reveal to the reader.
To summarise, I felt pretty let down by this book and that it was one of Murakami’s weaker works. Then again, it did sell a million copies in Japan in its first week, so maybe I’m completely wrong? Of course, I’d recommend Murakami fans read it so they can judge for themselves (books are very subjective, after all) but not to someone who has never read his books before. Incidentally, if you were wondering, my personal favourites are ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicles’ or ‘Kafka on the Shore’, before you berate me for bashing the talent that is Haruki Murakami.