A Review Article
By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Prisms turn a beam of colorless light into a full color spectrum. Sunshine in. Red/orange/yellow/green/blue/violet out. A rain- bow! No one who learns to do this in junior high science forgets the magic of it.
Well, hardly anyone forgets, unless they become literary critics, it seems. None of the reviewers I’ve encountered caught what’s largely at play in Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. They've tended to see the hero as a pathetic loser, which is almost excusable. Murakami, in his usual devious way, leads us into this trap. Even the hero of his tale has difficulty grasping the wonder of his own talent, which takes the form of engineering efficient railroad stations. He may be a level-headed, practical man of science, but people depend on him to get where they want to go safely and on time. What’s pathetic about that? Especially considering the importance of railroads in Japan. Bullet trains anyone?
The novel’s set up involves a group of five young people who eventually attend the same public high school in the suburbs of Nagoya. This group of inseparable friends includes two other boys, one named Akamatsu, which means Red Pine, the other named Oumi or Blue Sea. The two girls are sisters, Shirane or White Root and Kurono or Black Field. The latter names seem to be outliers at first, but they are tricks of light as dramatically in tension as the notions of colorful and colorless. One expects such modulations/complications from Murakami.
As for Tsukuru, he received from his father a curious name that means “create” in Chinese characters or “make/build,” in simpler Japanese characters, the variant deemed by papa to be less “burdensome” as a name for his son, whatever that means. Looking back at his childhood, Tsukuru isn’t sure. As a boy and young man, however, he fears that he is “the only one of the group [of friends] without anything special about him.” Ao is much smarter. Oumi is a terrific athlete. The girls are talented and beautiful. As for Tsukuru, he views himself as a colorless, middling sort of guy, smart but not brilliant, decent-looking yet far from film star handsome, no sportsman but not a klutz either. Oh yes! As a child, he liked to play with trains, a boyish obsession that turns into a profession demanding resourcefulness as well as calculation.
Meanwhile, although the young Tsukuru often wonders why his colorful friends put up with him, he revels in the reliability of their mutual loyalty, which seems to endure even after they graduate from high school, when Tsukuru is the only one to continue his studies. Leaving the others to do what they can in Nagoro, Tsukuru follows an engineering curriculum in Tokyo, returning periodically to visit his widowed mother and enjoy his friends. And then, horrors! During a routine visit, he’s informed that none of his friends want anything to do with him anymore. No visits. No phone calls. No explanations. The long expected has actually happened. His colorful friends have rejected him. He falls into a debilitating depression, and his social life in Tokyo is too meager to compensate.
Worse, the one girl who interests him won’t get serious until he returns to Nagoro and solves the mystery behind the wall of silence. Forced into a face to face session, Ao spills the beans. The neurotic “black” girl, having returned from a trip to Tokyo, had told her friends that Tsukuru had raped her. Ao admits that it was hard to visualize Tsukuru as a rapist, but the girl’s mental health was too fragile for argument. They had to pamper her, he says, although their loyalty couldn’t protect her from being murdered some time later by an intruder in her own apartment. This is tragic news for Tsukuru, but it’s also heartening news: he himself hasn’t been rejected—and he has made another important discovery. His colorful old pals, while succeeding up to a point, aren’t exactly making history. They certainly aren’t doing any better than he is.
In the closing chapters Murakami tips his hand less ambiguously than usual. The best scene finds Tsukuru sitting on a bench, one of many along the platform of an important station. He's watching the arrival and departure of trains, the ebb and flow of people. Like a poet rereading one of his own very good poems, Tsukuru takes quiet satisfaction in what he does so well. He also feels the drama and romance of the travel that he makes possible for people with errands and dreams. No, Tsukuru is not flamboyant. He’ll never be colorful. But he’s colorless as white light is: complete, integrated, whole.
Realizing this (though never is so many words), he’s ready to pursue the woman who wasn’t ready for him, which doesn’t mean she’ll accept him. Murakami isn’t going to give us such easy satisfaction. Nevertheless, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage isn’t the story of a dorky sad sack. It’s a success story. And his pilgrimage? It’s a journey to self-understanding and self-acceptance.
Why did so many American critics fail to see this? Partly, I think, it’s because Murakami slyly invites the derogatory interpretation. He depicts Tsukuru as thoroughly brainwashed into believing that only flamingly colorful extroversion is real personality. But mostly, I believe, the critical blindness stems from the deeply-ingrained American preference for extroverts, a phenomenon that is brilliantly examined by Susan Cain in her recent book entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Even in intellectual circles, evidently, there’s little appreciation for quiet accomplishment.