Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Five words from the blurb: friends, school, death, connections, reason

Tsukuru is 36, but as a teenager he was part of a group of five friends. One day they stopped talking to him and he felt abandoned. He hasn’t seen them for 16 years, but continues to be haunted by the mysterious way he was ostracised from the group. His girlfriend sees the pain this is causing and persuades him to track down his friends to discover the real reason that they blocked him out of their lives all those years ago.

I think I read this at exactly the right time in my life. I am also 36 and, coincidentally, was also part of a group of five in school. I married one of them, so am well aware of the way relationships effect the dynamics within a group. Last week we went to a wedding and the five of us were together again for the first time in fifteen years (although we have seen them all individually occasionally since then). Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage perfectly captures the feelings of meeting people that you were once very close to. Discovering how old friends have changed is a strange thing, and imagining how small decisions from the past could have changed the course of your life is hard to get your head around. 

Murakami delves into a range of emotions, explaining them beautifully: 

Jealousy – at least as 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 if 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. 

The first 80 pages of this book were very slow, but then Tsukuru started to meet his friends and the plot picked up pace. I was completely absorbed by the mystery and loved the way each character had a slightly different relationship with the others – I don’t think I’ve read many other books that have captured teenage group dynamics with this realism.

This book didn’t contain any of the strange mythology that Murakami is famous for, but it provides an insight into the lives of ordinary Japanese people. It isn’t necessary to know anything about the culture before reading this book, so is a good choice for those looking to try Japanese literature for the first time.

Overall, this is a strong book that deserves its place on the IFFP shortlist. The ending was perfect and I highly recommend it to anyone who has lost touch with old friends.

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10 Comments

  1. This is a really great review, definitely makes it a less daunting read :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      A Shropshire Girl, Yes, you shouldn’t be daunted by it. The first section is slow, but it isn’t complex to follow. Once you get past the 100 page mark you should fly through it. Hope you enjoy reading it!

  2. Alison P says:

    Like you Jackie, I’m an audiobook fan and this is on Audible’s Daily Deal offer today at £2.99 so it has now been duly ordered as a result of your review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Alison, This might work well on audio, but I haven’t seen any reviews from people who’ve listened to it yet. Come back and let me know your thoughts on it :-)

  3. Bellezza says:

    You wrote such an articulate post (as usual) on a book which was difficult for me to capture. I didn’t pick up the “old friends” thing as much as you did, although clearly that’s a theme. What stuck with me was the alienation and loneliness which Murakami depicts so well.

    This novel is on the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced May 27, wouldn’t it be great if he won?!

    1. Jackie says:

      Bellezza, Yes, Murakami does loneliness really well. For some reason this book resonated with me much more than Norwegian Wood, which sounds very similar on the surface.

      I’m lucky enough to be going to the IFFP award ceremony so am trying to read all the shortlisted novels. I think this would be a worthy winner, but I’ll let you know who I’m backing when I’ve finished reading the rest :-)

  4. I was browsing in the bookstore yesterday and had this in my hands at least twice, but didn’t buy it. Wish I’d read your post beforehand. I have not read Murakami… do you think this is a good place to start?

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, “I have not read Murakami… do you think this is a good place to start?” That depends. Murakami is famous for his wonderfully weird books. This one doesn’t have any of that strangeness and so could be seen as boring/ordinary. It depends what you look for in a book. If you appreciate great writing then you’ll enjoy this, but I’d probably recommend experiencing his bizarre writing. Perhaps starting with Kafka on the Shore. FIngers crossed you’ll enjoy that so much you’ll want to read everything else he’s ever written!

  5. Here is one that we agree on. I loved this book. You’re right about how well he gets the relationship among friends and what it’s like to meet again after a long time. Bellezza is also right about lonliness. But what do think about the false accusation?

    While far from ‘magical relaism’ I felt that the false accusation plot served the same purpose…a strange, almost fantastic, event the separated the narrator from the rest of the the ‘real’ world.

    It’s a very interesting book, one that would me for an excellent discussion over coffee.

    1. Jackie says:

      James, It’s good to hear that we agree on this one!
      SPOILERS!
      You make a good point about the accusation. It hasn’t been raised in many reviews (I guess to avoid the spoilers!) but I disagree about it adding a mythical-like feel to the novel. For me it was sadly far too realistic. Deciding why the girl made the story up makes a good discussion point, but I think the way it showed how a false accusation can ruin someones life was beautifully done.

      It also shows how important it is to deal with these issues as they arise. Uncertainty festers for years and I loved the way the book tackled this problem. I know I’m too prone for trying to ignore these things without a proper resolution!

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