Paperback, 336 pages
Book Review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
By Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Royce Grubic
Robert Frost famously remarked, “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” This has been interpreted to mean that poetry can’t be adapted from one language to another, directly or otherwise, even by the most skilled and attentive translator—so much depends on the idioms and nuances of the native tongue. The same usually isn’t said of novels; for instance, even if it is not read in the original French, Victor Hugo’s work is still considered great literature, and rightfully so. With Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, though, we wonder if something is lost in translation, especially when Japanese culture can seem so foreign.
Set in the present day, the novel is best described as a “relationship mystery,” as the main action involves Tsukuru trying to uncover why he was expelled from a tight-knit group of friends without explanation twenty years earlier. What begins as a somewhat unique psychological character study veers toward the normal (at least as far as literature goes): there is a murder, a love triangle, and the familiar dynamics of mid-life crisis. To this are added numerous surreal elements. The Postmodern ambiguity that remains when all is said is done feels like an honest reflection of life, but it is also predictable. Frankly, it is not surprising what is left unresolved at the end of the story—these days it’s a standard move for writers. Forty years ago it would have been more of a twist.
The “years of pilgrimage” part of the title refers to both Tsukuru’s existential journey and also to Franz Liszt’s Annes de Pelerinage, a piece which plays a prominent role throughout the narrative. Every musical moment feels forced and not very organic, however. The brilliant Czech/French author Milan Kundera in novels like Immortality is much better at creating such musico-literary symphonies, and he is more clever as a writer and more versed in music than Murakami.
The philosophical questions raised in the novel are interesting, though, and this is where Murakami is successful and the work fruitful. A compelling theme has to do with what might be called the hypostasis of desire, how our darker impulses can create a “shadow demon” (my term, not Murakami’s) that has real effects in the physical world—or real enough—and can bring about ruin. And it turns out that Tsukuru, despite his conviction of being without personality or significant presence, is more clueless than colorless, which speaks to the recurring idea in the story that we often have very little sense of how others actually view us.
Or how they view our creations. The new paperback edition opens with three solid pages of glowing review blurbs, and I wonder if these critics read the same book as me. Hype drives the publishing industry much more than actual genius, of course. This is not to say that Colorless Tsukuru is entirely lacking in greatness: there are at least three or four chapters that are beautifully written (the Finland section) and as captivating as the commentators would have us believe. But fifty-some excellent pages out of over three hundred isn’t the best batting average, especially when alongside that are painfully obvious symbols (such as Shiro’s whiteness and all of the names), seemingly important elements that are forgotten and just left hanging (e.g. the “death token” idea), wooden dialogue, terribly flat characters (basically all of them except Tsukuru, most notably Sara), and a moral message of dubious value (essentially, do whatever is necessary to hold on to a potential life-partner and avoid being alone, even if that person seems completely undeserving of such efforts). Most readers will happily applaud Murakami for all that is praiseworthy in the novel and blame the rest on the translator. The over-hyped foreign writer gets the best of both worlds.
—RPG (June 18, 2015)