Haruki Murakami’s quest to honour his literary hero Franz Kafka has resulted in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, one of his most moving and accessible novels in years.
While Franz Kafka remains best known for his genre-bending novella The Metamorphosis, most will point to his 1925 novel The Trial as his opus, a deeply personal meditation on sex, society and isolation.
Murakami’s latest offering navigates similar waters. A young male protagonist slowly driven to breaking point by, what he perceives to be, an unjust judgement handed down upon him by the people he most cares about.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is as down to earth as Murakami has been for a long time. Talking cats, and vanishing elephants give way to musings on Arnold Wesker, The Pet Shop Boys and Barry Manilow.
When Tsukuru Tazaki is cut off without reason by his circle of high school friends during his sophomore year in college, his world spirals out of control, craving no human interaction and little appetite for food or life, pure hopelessness.
Fast forward twenty years and, despite halting his downward spiral, he is still haunted by those inexplicable events. At his girlfriend’s urging, he tracks down his former friends to get the answer for himself. The journeys he takes turn out to be as much inward as out of town. And as is often the case in Murakami’s fiction, his characters are all about introspection.
Murakami’s prose has always enthralled me, and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is no exception. His overall tone remains one of the most difficult to pin down in literature, with gorgeous flourishes routinely intercepted by the sort of stark language that belongs in an IKEA catalogue. That, however, is his gift. His words pull you this way and that, tenderising you to feel the full weight of a knockout blow.
One passage in particular took my eye, “The branches of a nearby willow tree were laden with lush foliage and drooping heavily, almost to the ground, though they were still, as if lost in deep thought. Occasionally a small bird landed unsteadily on a branch, but soon gave up and fluttered away. Like a distraught mind, the branch quivered slightly, then returned to stillness.”
Is it beautiful, concise simplicity, or simple, concise beauty? That question is itself an allegory for much of Murakami’s body of work.
Taking his devotion for Kafka further in the final pages, Murakami prefers to leave some of the novel’s biggest questions unanswered, a rarity for a writer who so often neglects characters and prose in preference for themes and plot. Perhaps these are questions he can’t answer, or maybe these are questions that should stay with us, lingering, until we journey towards discovery as Tsukuru does.
Many of the questions in The Trial were never answered as Kafka died before the final edits of the book. It still remains a masterpiece, one which Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will constantly be compared to, in itself the highest of praise.
It has become tradition that, on the eve of the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Japanese bookstores burst at the seams, champagne on ice, fans hoping that Murakami finally gets the nod. The big question is will Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, having already sold millions of copies worldwide, be enough to tip him over the edge?
Another question that, for the moment anyway, remains unanswered.
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog and was recently shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
You can follow his ramblings on twitter at @andrew__cat