Haruki Murakami’s gripping tale catches the reader with the first line. It begins with Tsukuru Tazaki in his sophomore year in college, contemplating thoughts of suicide. The reason is quickly explained. One day, during the summer vacation of his sophomore year, between the first and second semesters, his four closest friends, the friends he’d known for a long time, announce that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. His friends give him no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. Thus begins Murakami’s exploration of alienation and loneliness in the modern world.
Tsukuru, we learn, has always been the odd one out. His friends have a small, coincidental point in common: their last names all contain a colour. Tsukuru’s is the only last name that does not have a colour in its meaning. From the very beginning this fact makes him feel a little bit left out. And this Tsukuru, we find, a valuable member of society who builds the railway stations which are so crucial to our modern life, struggles with feelings of inferiority. In the beginning, he thinks of himself as the only one in the group without anything ‘special’ about him. He thinks that everything about himself is “middling, pallid, lacking in colour.” Not only this, but he feels that there is “something about him that wasn’t exactly normal, something that set him apart.” These feelings persist and continue to perplex and confuse him, from his boyhood all the way to the present, when he is thirty-six years old.
Tsukuru is forced to confront the enigma of his past and his feelings about himself when he begins to fall for the attractive Sara Kimoto. She tells him something is blocking him emotionally. Tsukuru agrees: he has never been able to let another person in his heart since he has been ostracised by his closest friends. Sara says she will only continue to see him on the condition that he find out the motivation for his ostracism from his four old friends. Tsukuru them embarks on a quest that takes him from his old hometown to Finland as he attempts to understand his past and thus himself. Tskuru becomes the ‘archaeologist’ of his own present and history, his own truth. As a character remarks in the novel:
“The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand… As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.
Tsukuru is the archaeologist who has to uncover the city buried in sand to find his own truth.
Murakami’s intellectual adventure is a delight to read. From a character’s philosophical discussion of the freedom of thought to Sara’s brief comments about the philosophical relation between the amount of information about people on the internet and the knowledge of other people, there are masterly touches. The outré and the real combine in a fascinating synthesis. The descriptions are deft, the characters captivating.
Murakami closely interrogates the relationship between fantasy and reality in this work – how individual fantasies become shared truths, how something imaginary becomes real and binds together a community and excludes an Other (but which, ambiguously, can also destroy that same community in the end). Which reality has Tsukuru stepped into? Whose reality? Towards the close of the novel, Tsukuru gains a deeper insight into that first community he was part of, a community he thought of as perfect and harmonious:
“And in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
In arriving at this insight, Tsukuru learns the subtlety of the relations which bound together the first community of friends. He learns that he is no ‘empty vessel’, but that he has personality, a colour of his own and that he has something to offer. He is no longer “a refugee from his own life”.
The tantalising ending of Murakami’s novel raises more questions than it answers. This feels right. It is a philosophical and psychologically deep novel. Tsukuru’s confrontation with his history and his present reminds me of the psychoanalytic process, as does Murakami’s investigation of the role of fantasy in the construction of a shared reality. I liked this book immensely. It is an important and deservedly popular work.