“The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki” by Haruki Murakami

“The reason why death had such a hold on Tsukuru Tazaki was clear. One day his four closest friends, the friends he’d known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk to 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.” – The opening of Haruki Murakami’s The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki

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This, Murakami’s 13th novel, centres on the eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year-old railway station engineer living in Tokyo. An archetypal Murakami-esque character, Tsukuru is, like so many of his characters, nonchalant, insular, and highly independent. He is an uncomplicated individual who enjoys the simple pleasures of life, with food, music, and swimming among his favourite pastimes. Not for the first time, Murakami takes his straightforward character and places him in a world of mystery, which is the principal element that moves the plot forward. 16 years previously, Tsukuru had been a member of a close group of friends in his hometown of Nagoya. The four friends–Ao, Aka, Yuku and himself—spent large portions of their childhood in each other’s company, and during this period they had formed a deep intimacy and trust that seemed unbreakable. They are described as a talented, intriguing, promising group of individuals who bounced off and relied on each other’s camaraderie. Yet suddenly, without any indication why, this intimate friendship is pulverised when Tsukuru is told that by friends that they no longer want to see him, speak to him, nor have any contact of any kind with him ever again. The nonchalant and stoical Tsukuru accepts his fate without a word goes his separate way onto his future life in the Japanese capital.

 

Nevertheless, this fierce bombshell inevitably incurs catastrophic fallout, and 16 years later it is Tsukuru’s girlfriend, Sara, who is discovering the shrapnel of that fallout as it seemingly hinders the development of their relationship. Tsukuru seems to be fully away of the psychological consequences of the break-up and shares with the reader the erotic dreams he has featuring his two female childhood friends. Yet it is Sara who urges Tsukuru to uncover his past, to clear up the enigmatic circumstances of events 16 years ago, not only for the sake of their relationship but also for his own peace of mind. The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki follows the protagonist’s return to his hometown before later setting off to Finland in an attempt to truly put the past behind him.

 

Franz Kafka once wrote that

“I think we ought to read on the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … we need to read books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief”.

In my opinion, this Murakami novel is more like a pleasant backscratcher than an axe. It contains many of the motifs/niceties that we have come to associate with his novels—music and vinyl records, sleep and (erotic) dreams, appetising descriptions of freshly cooked food, erections and vaginas, literature and books, a surrealistic passage with peculiar characters—yet I felt that the book didn’t have much bite, nothing that excited me in the way reading Murakami has excited me in the past. It lacks originality, and for this reason I think Murakami has sold us short with The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki.

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As ever, Murakami doesn’t hold himself responsible for having to explain much of the goings-on of the novel, but I found this frustrating and indeed infuriating at times. No less than in the section that describes the breakup of the famous friendship group that sits at the novel’s core; after being told that his friends no longer want to see or speak to him, Tsukuru Tazaki “didn’t dare ask” for an explanation for such a rash, harsh decision, but instead just decides to saunter off to Tokyo and try to forget about it. Is he having a giraffe? His four closest friends abandon him without a hint of reason, he is completely innocent of any wrongdoing, and still he just runs along without a word? Perhaps this is a poignant statement about Tsukuru’s personality; I, however, simply found it anguishing and unrealistic. After being left in the lurch by his four not-so-reliable-after-all pals, Tsukuru boards a train to Tokyo where he goes to study and work, and where he befriends another quintessentially Murikami-esque character who enjoys cooking, making him coffee and listening to music on his vinyl record player. We learn a lot more about the intimacy of Tsukuru’s friendship with Haida than with his four childhood friends, yet when, in a similar bout of confusion, Haida packs up and leaves without a word of explanation, Tsukuru or Murakami simply don’t seem all too bothered about the episode. Moreover, considering that the novel partially revolves around the effects of severed friendships, it is astonishing that Murakami never feels the need revisit Tsukuru’s friendship with Haida, as it is so necessary to do for his older friendships. Why not? His relationship with Haida is deeply personal, emotional, intense, and yet after Haida steps out away from the narrative there is, as far as I recall, no later reference to him or their friendship.

 

What I did enjoy was the novel’s exploration of childhood and the inextricable bonds of friendship that remain with us throughout our lives. When Tsukuru catches up with his old friends, that spark and connection is instantly felt and he is able to speak openly and forthrightly with them. The four disparate individuals of their friendship group all follow very different paths, yet Murakami’s depiction suggests that there is something fundamental that remains the same in all of them, something that they all recognise in one another. Despite it not being distinctly original or challenging, it is also relaxing to read about the simplistic, minimalistic lifestyles of the characters that Murakami has a talent for describing, conveying the minutiae of non-events such as a gentle swim, or cooking a basic meal, or listening to a song, with such clarity and richness that you can take with you into your own life. The novel’s pace during these sections, too, can transfix you and lull you into a state of peacefulness and relaxation. This is no mean feat, and I feel that although Murakami has been writing these types of novel for a long time, there is still credit due for his achievements here.

 

For me, nonetheless, The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki lacks the originality and personality to make it stand out from the rest of Murakami’s oeuvre. A pleasant book that slides nicely in between the tomes of 1Q84, the novel and its characters are sadly undistinguished from several older characters and will probably end up in the Murakami section of your imagination that is becoming one big amalgamation of the same sort of characters, settings, plotlines and dialogue. Although undoubtedly a talented and revered author, I would like to see Murakami step away from his comfort zone to write a novel that challenges his readers as well as himself. Until he does, and despite his undeniable story-telling talents, he may well miss out on prizes that many think he deserves.

“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the time being

Walking along her local beach on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, American-Japanese author Ruth (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author of this novel) spots an enigmatic package which seems to have been washed ashore. Recent rumours claim that remnants of the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan are finding their way across the ocean to these shores, but not quite this early. Underneath the barnacles Ruth can only identify the package as plastic debris and opts to take it home to be properly disposed of.

Yet when her insatiably curious partner, Oliver, probes the package, he discerns a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a French edition of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Within, the book’s pages seem to have been replaced by blank sheets containing a Japanese script. A Tale for the Time Being sees Ruth unearth the narrative of Naoko Yasutani, a 16 year-old Japanese girl determined to the story of her putative 104 year-old radical feminist nun great-grandmother Jiko. However Nao instead becomes so absorbed in unfurling the circumstances of how she ended up in a French-themed café in Tokyo writing her great-grandma’s memoir that she instead ends up filling the book up recounting her own quite charming story of adolescence, the contents of this novel.

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Ruth Ozeki with her novel “A Tale for the Time Being”

            Its structure rocks back and forth from Nao’s diary to Ruth’s present day narrative as she reads the diary, recording her responses and its effect on her own lifestyle and outlook. Ruth details her growing empathy and affection for the diary’s narrator, but also her worry, knowing that the story must inevitably end with the diary being washed ashore on a distant island, presumably as a result of a tsunami. But Ruth is incredibly aware of her importance as a reader of this text, as is Nao who hopefully addresses her diary to an imaginative “you”, the presumed reader who will breathe new life into her story. The novel’s reflection on the writer-reader relationship resonates with us all as bibliophiles and one which fascinates Ozeki.

I adored the insight the novel gives into Japanese custom, culture and thought. This is only my second foray into Japanese literature (any other suggestions would be welcome?) after reading Murakami’s 1Q84 last summer, and I enjoyed the philosophical, meditative outlook that that seems to emanate from Japanese authors. One of the central themes pondered here is the proximity and the slight boundary between life and death. Ozeki’s exploration of this relationship reminded me of Shakespeare’s toying with comedy and tragedy in his plays, as despite the fact it seems that life and death, or comedy and tragedy are polar opposites, absolute extremes at opposite ends of the spectrum, both writers find that the difference between the two is instead a very fine line. But Ozeki furthers her exploration and asks (I think) the more profound question of what is means to exist or to not exist, and moreover her characters pose the possibility, based on theories in quantum mechanics, of multiple existences and multiple worlds. These ideas inevitably feed back into Nao’s narrative and the ominous question mark that lingers over the possible conclusions to he own story, but it also feeds into the meta-textual ideas about the multifarious narratives available to the author.

But probably the central theme of A Tale for the Time Being is that of the passage of time. Ozeki’s novel is one that zips through history, reflecting of ancient Zen masters before jolting to the present day as Ruth researches Nao and her family on Google and via e-mail before heading back to 1944/45 when Nao’s great-uncle Haruki struggles with the moral dilemmas of being obliged to fight as a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Then there is Nao writing her diary in Proust’s opus about lost time and then her later discovery of his sequel about Le Temps Retrouvé (time regained). What does it mean to exist within time? How is time separated? How do we relate to time at particular moments in our life? Such questions tie in with the novel’s wrangling with the problem of existence and life and death.

Yet despite the philosophic profundity of these ideas, Ozeki writes in relatively plain, accessible and lucid prose. She has a shining talent for storytelling and it was clear to me why this deeply pensive yet captivating and fervent novel, painted with all the colours of Japan, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize.