Monday, September 1, 2014

Something New

“COLOURLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker; distributed by Collins-Random House, $NZ45)

You might suspect you know the territory in which you have landed as soon as you read the opening paragraph of Haruki Murakami’s novel Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It reads thus:
From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying. He turned twenty during this time, but his special watershed – becoming an adult – meant nothing. Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution, and even now he couldn’t say why he hadn’t taken this final step. Crossing that threshold between life and death would have been easier than swallowing a slick, raw egg.” (p.1)
We are, it would seem, about to be plunged into a novel of angst and alienation and potential suicide. And thus it is for much of the novel’s length.
When Tsukuru was at high school, he was close friends with four other students. In Japanese, the names of the other four all
referred to colours. The two boys were Aka (Red) and Ao (Blue). The two girls were Kuro (Black) and Shiro (White). Tsukuru, “colourless” Tsukuru, alone had a name which did not refer to colour. Instead, his name meant “to build” or “to make” – a most appropriate moniker, given that Tsukuru was intent on studying civil engineering and designing the railway stations with which he was obsessed.
At high school the five of them were inseparable.
Then something went badly wrong.
Tsukuru moved to Tokyo to pursue his studies. His four friends all stayed in the provincial city of Nagoya. When he returned there on holiday, none of them would speak to him. They were unavailable on the phone. They would not answer his calls. They consciously cut him off and shunned him. When he tried to ask one why this was so, he was told coldly and seriously that he should surely know why they now wanted nothing more to do with him. He got no further explanation.
Sixteen years later, at the age of 36, and with a sort of girlfriend, called Sara, to confide in, Tsukuru, “colourless” Tsukuru, has a life which seems the paradigm of buttoned-down normality. Late in the novel it is summarised as follows:
At least from the outside, Tsukuru Tazaki’s life was going well, with no particular problems to speak of. He’d graduated from a well-known engineering school, found a job in a railway company, working as a white-collar professional. His reputation in the company was sound, and his boss trusted him. Financially, he had no worries. When his father died, Tsukuru inherited a substantial sum of money and the one-bedroom condo in a convenient location near the centre of Tokyo. He had no loans. He hardly drank and didn’t smoke, and he had no expensive hobbies. He spent very little money. It wasn’t that he was especially trying to economize or live an austere life, but he just couldn’t think of ways to spend money. He had no need for a car, and he got by with a limited wardrobe. He bought books and CDs occasionally, but that didn’t amount to much. He preferred cooking his own meals to eating out, and even washed his own sheets and ironed them.” (p. 187)
But Tsukuru is still eaten up with the thought of how he was ostracised by his former friends. He has difficulty forming strong relationships with anybody. He has an intense friendship with a male student of Physics called Haida. But when Haida begins to invade his erotic dreams, Tsukuru sleeps with a woman just to reassure himself that he isn’t homosexual. He cannot quite fully commit himself to Sara.
Sara takes matters into her own hands. Methodically, she finds out what has become of each of Tsukuru’s former friends, and where each now lives. She urges Tsukuru to visit each and to clear up what is blighting his life. Tsukuru does so. And at this point, a little shy of halfway through the novel, I break off my neat synopsis. I consider it unmannerly to give away vital plot twists in a new novel, and there is one as soon as Tsukuru proceeds to investigate his own past. It is something both shocking and startling, which is the way I prefer to leave it.
How do I judge this curious novel? It begins as a sort of existentialist fable about the solitary individual’s place in a mutable and incomprehensible world. The sudden change in Tsukuru’s status and fortune that happens when his friends, for no clear reason, ostracise him, is almost like the sudden change from man to bug that happens to Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I do not say this without some prompting. The novelist Haruki Murakami is a great fan of Kafka, once wrote a novel called Kafka on the Shore, and won the international Franz Kafka Prize. Yet, to my mild disappointment, this novel slowly transmutes from fable to psychological case study. It ceases to ask how strange and alien the world can be, and proceeds to ask merely what is wrong with Tsukuru Tazaki. Indeed, it becomes more Bildungsroman than fable as it goes through many of the phases of a young male’s mental maturation – expulsion from a comforting social group and loss of friends from schooldays; fears of not matching up to social expectations; performance anxiety in sex; fear of being homosexual; anxiety about the worth of a chosen career; and so on.
Having not a word of Japanese, I am of course dependent upon Philip Gabriel’s translation to gauge the tone and style of the novel. It is a very clean, clear prose, wasting few words. Sometimes I suspect the translator has embellished it. (Were the “gaggles of garrulous geese” on p.204 alliterative in the original?) Sometimes it is mildly portentous, as when a man showing Tsukuru the way is described as being “like the Grim Reaper having shown a dead person the road to Hades” (p.218). It certainly has a strong strain of overt symbolism. Tsukuru is “colourless” because he has yet to develop any distinctive personality and sense of self. There are repeated references to recordings of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” (hence the novel’s subtitle) to remind us that this is a novel with psychological growth as its goal. Tsukuru’s career as a designer of railway stations echoes his desire for an ordered, regular, timetabled life, in compensation for his sense of being an outcast. The most clumsy chapter is Chapter 17, wherein Tsukuru seeks, from a friend living in Finland, an explanation for his life’s woes. Here the author opts to spell out, in very expository dialogue, ideas that would have better been left implicit.
But I would certainly not underrate the novel as a representation of modern Japan and its material culture. One of the friends who have forsaken Tsukuru has made money by training people to become dutiful employees committed to company ethics. Somewhat scornfully, Sara describes his business thus:
‘The name’s new, but it’s not really much different from a personal development seminar,’ Sara said. “Basically a quick impromptu brainwashing course to educate your typical corporate warriors. They use a training manual instead of sacred scriptures, with promotion and a high salary as their equivalent of enlightenment and paradise. A new religion for a pragmatic age. No transcendent elements like in a religion, though, and everything is theorised and digitalized. Very transparent and easy to grasp. And quite a few people get positive encouragement from this. But the fact remain that it’s nothing more than an infusion of the hypnotic into a system of thought that suits their goal, a conglomeration of only those theories and statistics that line up with their ultimate objectives….’ ” (pp.116-117)
Becoming immersed in the commercial crowd is as much a nightmare as being turned away by friends. It looms large in those sections of this novel that approach satire.

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