Thursday, 9 April 2015

Haruki Murakami’s novel that should have been a short story

Full title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Author: Haruki Murakami; translated by Philip Gabriel
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 400 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Knopf (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Everything in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage revolves around characters. Big or small, they take up the forefront of the entire narrative exercise. Minor characters are passers-by within the story. You get to know what they wear, what they look like, how their hairdo behaves, how tall they are, how they hold their hands and how they blink, but you get to know nothing of their psyche. One of Haruki Murakami’s favourite techniques, this outsider’s look at people who don’t matter much stands up against the protagonist’s intense interiority. Tsukuru Tazaki, the title character and main player in the narrative game of the novel, is so deeply and exclusively immersed in his own mental life that the reader is left wondering if there has ever been a physical description of him along the way. Of course, Murakami being Murakami, Tsukuru has his share of physical description; and not just once. But somehow, in the context of these detailed descriptions of others, he loses his physical significance. He becomes an idea – a pilgrim of sorts.
Indeed, Tsukuru Tazaki has a lot on his plate. On his mental plate, to be more precise. Once part of a very tight group of five high-school friends, he is one day rejected by the others, and for a reason that stays hidden for sixteen years. All this time, he turns his life on all sides, trying to figure out where he’d erred, always on the brink of psychosis. But the other four had shrouded their complicit silence in a thick layer of mystery.
A very Kafkian mystery, to be true.
The entire novel is the story of Tsukuru’s journey of discovery: his repeated attempts at making sense of the absurd rejection. And since his fixation offers fertile ground for introspections, the novel builds up a list of obsessive repetitions. There are dreams repeatedly mentioned, for instance; very vivid dreams, which wake the protagonist up in the middle of the night, frighten or inspire him, make him do things. The sexual dreams are especially strong: intense, as well as memorable. Then there is the constant reference to Franz Liszt and his Years of Pilgrimage – obviously, the source of the novel’s title. Almost all major characters have come across this compilation; some of them have played it, a lot of them have listened to it with religiosity, a few of them have had their lives shaped by one outstanding piece: “Le Mal du Pays,” a quite haunting piece of orchestration, minimalist and discreet perhaps just like Murakami’s prose.

Haruki Murakami. Source: Pure M Magazine
And since we’re here, let’s say that Murakami’s style is, as always, disarmingly simple. Minimalism is his weapon of choice, lightness-of-tone his trademark. So much lack of complication, that when you stumble upon a heavy metaphor you take your time to savor it while it lasts. The metaphors that involve the sky are quite memorable. Take this, for instance:
“A distinct half-moon hung above, like a battered piece of pumice stone that had been tossed by someone and gotten stuck in the sky.”
Or this:
“[T]he sun a blurred orange silhouette halfway up the sky.”
The simple facts of style are mirrored by the simplicity of narration and the simplicity of the characters’ interactions.
Simple, simple, simple, but there’s a thing about this simplicity that’s likely to raise an eyebrow or two, as it’s already done. I don’t think I can put it just as efficiently as Mark Lawson in The Guardian last year, so I’m just going to quote:
“A reader without Japanese is completely at the mercy of Murakami’s translators; when the prose lowers to cliché or commonplace – as it seems to do surprisingly often in this novel – there is no way of knowing if Philip Gabriel is accurately representing his client or letting him down.”
That’s, indeed, the case, in many situations: when the language seems to be too hurried, when the difference between draft and manuscript is left to linger perhaps too thinly, or when dialogues seem to take into account a lot of the unnecessaries (the Yes’s and No’s that make up the fabric of daily chit-chats but which look awful on the lips of fictional people). The same happens when the characters talk to each other in overly-formal ways, even though they were supposed to be friends, or even lovers. All these give the impression that the novel is saying more than it should have said, that it peers, curiously, in more than a reader would be interested to know. So one wonders if this is not a novel that should have remained a short story.
Anyway, Murakami distributes his talents as well as he does his drawbacks, so bringing back the figure of Tsukuru Tazaki one would have to point out the suggestive dimensions of his presence. Reading his character is like reading through the structure of networks. He is a solitary node, constantly rejected from the fusion party. First the four friends tell him off for no apparent reason; then he feels rejected from all sorts of company: having experienced some scattered sexual encounters, he has never been able to settle on one relationship.
But Tsukuru Tazaki is networked in a different way. Rejected from human companionship, he indulges in his life’s passion: the passion for trains. He is a builder of train stations. In doing this he is fulfilling a high-school dream (and this is another thing that sets him apart in a world of aspirations modeled on the inhospitable logic of profit). Always a lover of trains, he has moments of aesthetic rapture in scenes where departing cars compete for attention with hurried human beings taking care of their daily business. Trains give him the possibility of networking. Contemplating trains, Tsukuru is able to imagine diagrams, relationships, associations, maps, affairs.
And so, when his moment of revelation comes, when Tsukuru finds the way to connect with his fellow humans, he realizes that this connection has always been possible, but only through the agency of pain:
“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.”

his is where Murakami is at his most philosophical: in the way he scans the inner life of his protagonist, rummaging through every corner of his history for a way out of the central dilemma. The denouement may not be spectacular, but it does provide a closure that satisfies the protagonist; who, at the end of the day, is the only person who seems to have mattered.