Your best friends suddenly desert you, for no apparent reason – sounds like something out of junior high – yet Haruki Murakami weaves a compelling tale based on his character’s search for an explanation in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
Each person in the group, except Tsukuru, has a family name corresponding to a color: Miss White, Miss Black, Mr. Red, Mr. Blue. Tsukuru saw himself as the colorless, empty fifth to the group, and faced despair and suicidal thoughts when his friends deserted him. He is briefly rescued by a new college friend, Haida, who draws him into music and swimming, and then suddenly disappears from his life – leaving Tsukuru to wonder if he is destined to always be alone. Somehow he managed to finish college and have a successful career. Now in his thirties, Tsukuru is a successful engineer, specializing in building train stations, but the trauma of his friends’ desertion sixteen years earlier has left him emotionally drained and still unable to sustain a meaningful relationship. When he meets Sara, she convinces him that he will not be able to heal his invisible scars until he reconnects with his old friends to discover why they unilaterally banned him from the group without explanation when he was a sophomore in college.
The pilgrimage follows his journey back to each old friend, and his discovery of strange lies and unrequited feelings. Along the way, Tsukuru questions his own worth, as Murakami skillfully uses dreams to reveal Tsukuru’s fears and desires. Of course, no one is the same after sixteen years, and Murakami’s astute descriptions of how teenage tendencies led to unexpected careers is an amusing commentary on the expectations and eventual fate of each person in the group. Tsukuru turns out to have more true color in his life than the rest.
The ending is left unresolved for the reader to decide. Clearly, Tsukuru’s pilgrimage helped him resolve his issues and finally appreciate his grown-up self, but whether that will lead to happily ever after with Sara or a life continuing to search for a soulmate is not clear – a good ending for speculation and discussion.
Murakami, as popular a writer as he is, remains elusive and complicated. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is thankfully not as long as some of his other books, and I actually read this in one day – urged on by the promise of the discovery of the reason behind the group’s scornful break with the main character. When the reason is revealed, it seems anticlimactic; the pilgrimage has more to do with how actions affect the lives of the characters – both Tsukuru and each of the others in the group. No one likes being abandoned by friends, and the scars remain.