“You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.”

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Chapters 1-10
By Dennis Abrams

cover tazaki 1

Let me start by saying: I devoured this in one sitting. It hit home with me in very personal ways.

And let me quote from Patti Smith’s review (yes, that Patti Smith) from The New York Times:

“This is a book for both the new and experienced reader. It has a strange casualness, as if it unfolded as Murakami wrote it; at times, it seems like a prequel to a whole other narrative. The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru comes to understand. “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.” The book reveals another side of Murakami, one not so easy to pin down. Incurably restive, ambiguous and valiantly struggling toward a new level of maturation. A shedding of Murakami skin. It is not “Blonde on Blonde,” it is “Blood on the Tracks.”

A quick summation of the plot so far:

Tsukuru Tazaki, whose life-long interest in train stations led to a career in train station design, experienced a serious and devastating depression the summer after his sophomore year in college at the age of twenty. At that time, he because obsessed with death, and spent his time thinking about suicide. This depression was preceded by a startling piece of news from one of his high school friends: Ao told him, flat-out, that his entire group of friends (totally close-knit, three boys/two girls) no longer wanted to be friends with him. But even more than that, not only did they no longer want his friendship, they refused to speak with, or even to explain why they were ending their relationship with him.

At the time, Tsukuru suffered from the complete shock of this rejection and could not begin to pursue the reason for his banishment from the group. When he talked to his “girlfriend” Sara, sixteen years later, she couldn’t believe that he had gone so long without knowing what had happened – she believed that he suffered from “emotional blockage” because of the way the closest friendships he’d ever had ended so abruptly.

We learn (as the book goes back and forth in time) that Tsukuru made only one friend in Tokyo after his break from his high school friends. He met Haida at the college swimming pool, and the two quickly became closed friends, spending must of their free time together listening to classical music, dining on food prepared by Haida, and having deep and long intellectual and philosophical conversations. After Tsukuru had a strange erotic dream involving his two female high school friends along with Haida, his friend disappeared for several days. When he returned, he claimed that he had had family issued to take care of. His return was short-lived though – and shortly thereafter he abruptly left again, never to return. And again, Tsukuru found himself wondering why people always wanted to get away from him.

Sara finally convinces Tsukuru to dig into his past and go see his only high school friends, but only after revealing what she had managed to learn about them – including the fact that one of the girls had died – and that she would not be able to pursue a relationship with him if he can’t clear up some of the emotional barriers from his past.

On his first visit to Ao, he learns that the fourth friend, Shiro, accused him of raping her and that was why he was so abruptly ejected from their circle. He also learned that Shiro was murdered, and that her assailant was never caught.

But of course there’s a lot more going on than that.

First, some of my favorite things:

“But as is so often the case with short people – he never grew past five food three – once he made up his mind about something, no matter how trivial it might be, he never backed down.”

“You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them…If nothing else you need to remember that. You can’t erase history, or change it. It would be like destroying yourself.”

“There are certain thoughts that, no matter what, you have to keep inside.”

“A sudden thought struck him – maybe I really did die. When the four of them rejected me, perhaps the young man named Tsukuru Tazaki really did pass away. Only his exterior remained, but just barely, and then over the course of the next half year, even that shell was replaced, as his body and face underwent a drastic change. The feeling of the wind, the sound of rushing water, the sense of sunlight breaking through the clouds, the colors of flowers as the seasons changed – everything around him felt changed, as if they had all been recast. The person here now, the one he saw in the mirror, might at first glance resemble Tsukuru Tazaki, but it wasn’t actually him. It was merely a container that, for the sake of convenience, was labeled with the same name – but its contents had been replaced. He was called by that name simply because there was, for the time being, no other name to call him.”

“Jealousy – at least a far as he understood it from his dream – was the most hopeless prison in the world. Jealousy was not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily, locked the door, and threw away the key. And not another soul in the world knew he was locked inside. Of course he wanted to escape, he could do so. The prison was, after all, his own heart. But he couldn’t make that decision. His heart was as hard as a stone wall. This was the very essence of jealousy.”

I loved the entire scene with the elder Haido and Midorikawa – we’ll go into their conversation much deeper in a later post.

“The world isn’t that easily turned upside down, Haida replied. It’s people who are turned upside down.”

“Apart from whether I like it or not, I don’t reject thinking about things that aren’t logical. It’s not like I have some deep faith in logic. I think it’s important to find the intersection between what is logical and what is not.”

“You need to live [life] to the fullest. No matter how shallow and dull things might get, this life is worth living. I guarantee it. And I’m not being either ironic or paradoxical. It’s just that, for me, what’s worthwhile in life has become a burden, something I can’t shoulder anymore. Maybe I’m just not cut out for it. So, like a dying cat, I’ve crawled into a quiet, dark place, silently waiting for my time to come. It’s not so bad. But you’re different. You should be able to handle what life sends your way. You need to use the thread of logic, as best you can, to skillfully sew onto yourself everything that’s worth living for.”

The specificity of the French food Sara and Tsukuru had – and I’ll ponder this again – what would the significance be (or how would it be read) by a Japanese audience as opposed to us? And Sara always has dessert – he doesn’t.

Tsukuru “separate” from Sara when they had sex.

“The more he thought about the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious, the less certain he became of his own identity.”

Tsukuru’s dream with Haida – more on this later.

“And he couldn’t grasp the boundary between dream and imagination, between what was imaginary and what was real.”

“Unceasing crowds of people arrived out of nowhere, automatically formed lines, boarded the trains in order, and were carried off somewhere. Tsukuru was moved by how many people actually existed in the world.”

And of course, to hear the “theme music” (If you will) of this book, Franz Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays,” from Years of Pilgrimage, performed by Haida’s favorite, Lazar Berman, click here.
And second, from Strecher’s fascinating book, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami:

“…I will end this volume with a close reading of Murakami’s most recent work, Shikiasi o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, kare no junrei no toshi (2013), for which Murakami conveniently appends the English title, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage.’ As we will see, this work is structurally most similar to Norwegian Wood, in that the ‘other world’ never makes a full-blown appearance in the way it does in works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, and yet it particularly appropriate for a closing text for two reasons: first, it places front and center the role of dreams; and second, it seems – almost consciously at times – to revisit almost every major motif in Murakami fiction, from embedded narratives to the ‘nostalgic image.’ It also shows us, as Ando Reiji notes, ‘where Murakami is headed from here,’ and while he does not fully elaborate, we might note that new motifs include a depiction of the human core identity (the soul) in the form of light and colors, and a more explicit awareness of what I termed ‘divine’ characters in the previous chapters, but here might simply be called ‘the gifted.’ Murakami also writes his first homosexual sex scene.

…Structurally speaking, Tazaki Tsukuru is similar to much previous Murakami fiction in that it tells two stories: one current, the other in retrospect. The author makes liberal use of embedded narratives, much as he does in Pinball, 1973; A Wild Sheep Chase; and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and in one case he has a second long narrative embedded within the first. He also continues his contrastive opposition of Tokyo as an urban emblem of the contemporary, and Nagoya, Oita, and finally Finland as not-altogether-metaphysical expressions of ‘over there.’ In its most superficial terms, the work may be read as the story of a man traumatized by an accident at the age of twenty who, having suppressed his memories of that time for some sixteen years, must now embark on a journey to confront those who traumatized him. His goal is to discover the truth about what happened to him and why, and in so doing heal the inner part of himself that remains injured.

Tazaki Tsukuru grew up in Nagoya, and during his high school years belonged to a tightly knit group of five friends. The other four – two males and two females – all have colorful names: the women are Kurono (black field) and Shirane (white root), while the men are Akamatsu (red pine) and Omi (blue sea). In typical Japanese fashion, they are addressed by their respective colors: Kuro, Shiro, Aka, and Ao. Only Tazaki lacks any color imagery in his name and is thus jokingly referred to as ‘colorless Tazaki Tsukuru.’ Jokes aside, however, his lack of color actually troubles him, causes him to feel out of place in this colorful group, and irrational though it may be, he often wonders why the others accepted him as a member.

The group itself is significant, according to Tazaki’s own description, in that it operates under certain unspoken rules, first and foremost of which is that they must always do everything together. Explaining it to his girlfriend, Kimoto Sara, in the present narrative, Tazaki calls his group ‘an orderly, harmonious team,’ but it would be more accurate to describe it as a kind of hermetically sealed, utopian closed circle, and there is an implicit curse set against any who might disrupt its perfection.

Tazaki is the first to break this commandment when he elects, unlike the others, to leave Nagoya and attend college I Tokyo, the only place where he can obtain the specialized training he will need to design and construct railway stations. The other four show him support in his endeavor, but the unspoken curse has been invoked, and less than two years after leaving Tokyo, returning home during vacation, Tazaki discovers that he has been unilaterally expelled from the group. Asking Aka – who is tasked with informing Tazaki of his expulsion by telephone – why this has happened, he is told that he should ‘ask himself’ that question. Feeling that further inquiry is pointless, Tazaki returns to Tokyo.

For the next five months following this incident, Tazaki thinks chiefly of death. It is not unnatural that he should consider suicide, but in his case he goes beyond just thinking and seems to place himself precisely on the border between the worlds of the living and the dead. He does not, so far as we know, take the one final step that would cast him into the world of death, but this is a little ambiguous in the narrative, even to Tazaki himself. He has barely eaten in the five months of his confinement, and looking at his emaciated appearance in the mirror, he finds himself resembling a corpse more than a man. ‘In some sense, I might truly have been on the brink of death. Like the shell of an insect, still stuck to a tree branch, I could have been blown into oblivion by a good strong wind, just barely clinging to life in this world…Or maybe – the thought struck Tsukuru – maybe I really did die.’

What brings Tazaki out of his long reverie on death is a dream, in which a woman he does not know – yet desperately desires – offers him her body or her soul, but not both, for the other will be given to someone else. Assailed for the first time in his life by powerful jealousy – a fact that in itself should arouse our interest – Tazaki tries to tell the woman that he must have all of her or none of her, but she is unrelenting. As his frustration grows to rage, a pair of powerful hands grip him and squeeze, as though the marrow will be crushed out of his bones, until the anger is driven out. Tazaki then awakens, bathed in sweat. [MY NOTE: how often does this happen in Murakami?] From this point on he steps away from the brink of death, puts the Nagoya incident behind him, and begins to strengthen his weakened body through healthy meals and regular exercise taken at the university pool. He is, however, conscious that this ‘new’ Tazaki is not the same as the old. His five-month brush with death has transformed him into a new and more formidable man.

While swimming at the pool one day, Tazaki meets Haida, a fellow student two years his junior, who studies physics but whose true passion lies in philosophy. Haida, a handsome youth with what appears to be the scar of a deep knife wound at the nape of his neck, takes a liking to Tazaki, which once again surprises the latter, partly because they are very different but also out of his habitual assumption that he has nothing to offer the relationship, no ‘color’ (Haida’s name, which means ‘gray field,’ is also colorful, and more than once Tazaki mentally transposes his name as ‘Mister Gray’). In contrast with Tazaki, whose first name means ‘to make/create,’ and who is indeed adept at creating ‘things that have form,’ Haida’s true interest lies in the abstract, in the freedom that comes with leaving the world of the flesh behind. During one of his regular visits to Tazaki’s apartment, where the two young men talk, cook, and listen to classical music, he explains his philosophy on the separation of flesh and spirit (a theme given considerable development in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, as noted previously), reminding us of the woman in Tazaki’s fateful dream:

‘To think freely about things is also to separate ourselves from the flesh we are crammed into. To escape from that limiting cage that is our flesh, to break free of our chains and take flight into pure reason. In reason lies the natural life. That’s what is at the core of freedom of thought.’

Haida’s implied ability to divide flesh and spirit is given graphic demonstration that very night. Awakened by what he thinks is a noise in the room, Tazaki finds himself immobilized (echoing the Leader and Tengo in 1Q84). And while the room is pitch dark, he somehow knows that Haida is in the room with him. The scene is quite similar to that in which Naoko visits Watanabe Toru in Norwegian Wood; unable even to turn his head to see the clock at his bedside, time is eliminated from this space between the worlds of ‘this side’ and ‘over there.’ Meanwhile, Tazaki concentrates on Haida, but he senses that this is not Haida’s physical form. Rather, ‘he could not tell whether the Haida who stood there was the real Haida. Maybe the real, physical Haida was still out there in the other room, sound asleep on the sofa, and this was only Haida’s alter ego, separated from his body.’ Tazaki is not afraid of Haida, only puzzled about his purpose and concerned about his sudden paralysis. But he senses that Haida is frustrated with him. ‘It seemed as though Haida had something he wanted to tell him. He had some message that he needed to convey at all costs. But for some reason that message could not be converted into real words. This was irritating his wise younger friend.’ At length Tazaki falls asleep and has a vivid erotic dream in which Kuro and Shiro, both still in their teens, make love to him, in turns and together. As he approaches climax, however, the two girls and suddenly disappear, replaced by Haida, who takes Tazaki’s penis into his mouth, whereupon Tazaki ejaculates violently. He awakens somewhat abashed the following morning and is surprised to discover no residue of the dream in his underwear or bedclothes, leading him to wonder whether this truly had been a dream at all. Either way, he has the uncomfortable sense that Haida is somehow aware of what has happened, ‘that perhaps Haida had, that night, with those sharp eyes of his, seen straight through him to something lurking at the bottom of his consciousness. Maybe he had felt the remnants of doubt within him…Haida had examined and dissected, one by one, all of the delusions and desires that Tsukuru had kept hidden away.’

Not long after his dream Haida disappears. Tazaki is left, not unnaturally, with questions about his own sexuality and is somewhat relieved to have his first sexual experience shortly thereafter in the waking world, with a real, flesh-and-blood woman. He brings the thing off successfully.

Haida’s role in the narrative, then, is to awaken in Tazaki an awareness of the nature of his inner sexual desire, but it is also to connect him more concretely to his memories and desire for Shiro. This is clear in his introduction to Tazaki of classical music, and one piece in particular: Franz Liszt’s La Mar du Pays, roughly translated into English as ‘Homesickness,’ but more fully explained by Haida as ‘a kind of reasonless melancholy that a pastoral scene calls forth into the soul.’

This also happens to be the piece, Tazaki realizes upon hearing it again, that Shiro always played when she wanted to get away from the world. It is an unusually obscure and challenging piece for a high school girl to play, but those melancholy strains come to represent Shiro, indeed, to contain her very soul, even after death.”

What do you all think so far?

My next post: Tuesday, November 18, the rest of the book. (I’ll have one last post on the 25th.)

Enjoy.

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One thought on ““You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.””

  1. I, too, read this book in one sitting and really enjoyed it. I love that it floats in and out of past, present, and dreams, that it touches on a storyline and then that storyline kind of falls away (the story of Haida’s father could be another novel in itself, and I expected Murakami to pick it up again but he doesn’t.) It makes the reading seem almost hallucinatory. As much as I love Murakami’s epic works, it’s the ‘quiet’ (is this the right word?) narratives like this one that seem to stay longer and resonate with me.

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