Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami • trans. Philip Gabriel (Alfred A. Knopf • hardcover • $25.95)
Murakami’s latest effort launches with a death wish. It’s Tsukuru Tazaki’s sophomore year in college, and his four best friends in the world have suddenly, without any explanation, cut him off. They make clear only that it’s his own fault. Having already left his hometown of Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo—the only one of the tight-knit group to do so—Tsukuru sinks into a sickly depression. “Alienation and loneliness became a cable that stretched hundreds of miles long, pulled to the breaking point by a gigantic winch. And through that taut line, day and night, he received indecipherable messages.” Though Tsukuru eventually overcomes his desire to die, the inexplicable rejection casts a poisonous shadow for years.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoiling the delicate tensions of Tsukuru’s psychological journey, but at age 36 he finds himself prompted by the intriguing Sara Kimoto to confront the past and try, at long last, to understand it. With Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” from his Years of Pilgrimage suite forming a kind of thematic backbone, Tsukuru faces the darkest parts of himself and discovers, much to his surprise, an enormous gulf between the “colorless,” unexceptional, “empty vessel” he had always imagined himself to be and the decisive, substantial individual others see him as. The strange seems plausible in Murakami’s skillful hands, and a man’s fraught personal sojourn emerges as a magnetic, compelling mystery to be solved.
A wide cast of characters, elements of the fantastical and a mythic ecological message commingle in the first novel of Taiwanese author and butterfly scholar Wu Ming-Yi to be translated into English. Multiple stories and perspectives unfold alongside one another: Pacific Islander Atile’i is a second son from Wayo Wayo, forced by the customs of his people (which Wu lovingly and richly details) to sail away from his isolated island home. He becomes marooned on the so-called trash vortex floating in the Pacific Ocean and barely escapes death before washing up on Taiwan’s shore during a tsunami. Alice, until recently a college professor, lives in the eco-friendly Sea House she and her husband built on the shore, now flooded and beginning to wash away in the rising sea. But Alice, suicidal since her husband and son went missing, barely notices—until she rescues Atile’i. The novel dips into the perspectives of indigenous Taiwanese, environmentalists and scientists to culminate in an emotional story about human connection and natural fragility.
Wu’s prose reads like lapping waves. Plot threads cut off and pick up again at different points, creating tension without blunt cliffhangers. Time slides to and fro, seesawing from effect to cause and back again. Reality takes shape from magical currents, including the mysterious title figure. The novel’s cyclicity creates a forward momentum balanced with a feeling of inevitability—and in that sense, it’s paired perfectly with Wu’s overtly environmental subject matter. Some reviewers have complained that the message overwhelms the prose, but Wu deftly balances personal, intimate storytelling with a much vaster perspective that’s both haunting and beautiful.