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Book Catechism: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Describe this book in one word.

Can't do it. I hate reductionism, anyway.

But on the topic of reductionism: There is a great passage in this book about the massive Shinjuku train station in Tokyo. It describes a photograph that was taken at the station in the 1990s that was widely published in the United States, with an accompanying article that said, "Japan may be affluent, but most Japanese look like this, heads downcast and unhappy-looking." The main character of the novel, Tsukuru, disputes this observation: "The real reason that most passengers descending the stairs at Shinjuku Station during their packed morning commute were looking down was less that they were unhappy than that they were concerned about losing their footing."

That is to say, the station was so busy that in rush hour the crush forced people to look down to avoid being run over. It had nothing to be with being unhappy.

This is the non-reductionism at the heart of this fine novel. Murakami never allows us to settle into easy judgments. Tsukuru isn't really colorless. But in a way, he is. He goes on a long pilgrimage, but in the end he finds himself back where he was at the beginning. In many ways, at the end of the story he is the same person he was. But in another way, he undergoes profound change.

Well, that's awfully vague of you.

Ok. How about suspense as a one word description? It doesn't entirely fit but it's as good as a reductionist is going to get.

Now we are getting somewhere. Why suspense?

The book starts out with an inciting event and then slings the reader forward from big scene to big scene. It is very well plotted. It begins with Tsukuru being kicked out of a very close group of five friends he had in high school. His friends shun him from then on, with no explanation whatsoever. This completely unexpected event leaves him in shock.

After a few months of suicidal depression, Tsukuru rebounds with an unexpected friendship with a college student. This relationship ends as unexplicably as the loss of his high school friends. Years later, at the urging of Sara, his rather enigmatic girlfriend, he begins to look into his past, to find out what happened. One by one, he encounters his old friends, and has he does, the revelations mount. Each encounter with an old friend pushes Tsukuru on into the next one. And each encounter drives the reader forward as well.

I kept asking myself, What will happen when he meets the next one? To heighten the suspense, Murkamani sets the final encounter in rural Finland, making the last interview a spiritual and physical encounter. It is nicely done, a simple setup for an intensifying series of interactions, the stakes rising each time. I was surprised to find that the book was a real page-turner, not something I expected at all.

So the book is a mystery novel?

In a way. But some mysteries were never solved. In fact, several of the biggest questions raised by the plot were never answered.

In the hands of an inferior writer, this would be a real problem. But Murakami makes it clear that answering all the questions is not Tsukuru's quest. His quest is to learn to live with unanswered questions.

That is something we all must do. Learn to live with unanswered questions.

If that is true, why bother to read the book at all? In fact, why bother to write a book if you don't intend to answer questions?

It would be grossly unfair to the book to say it didn't answer any questions. It answered many. Just not all of them.

For example, Tsukuru inherits a Heuer watch from his father. It is an old watch, expensive. It doesn't keep perfect time, although it is pretty accurate. It has to be wound all the time or it will stop. Slightly temperamental, impractical, not at all like the rest of Tsukuru's life. Somehow this odd watch says something about Tsukuru, and about his father who wore it before him, but we never really understand what. But this is all right. We are not supposed to understand all of the vagaries about our lives. Tsukuru likes the watch; it is not like him, but not entirely different either. We can assume the same was probably true about his father, whom we never get to know.

And that is fine. Every loop does not have to be closed. Every watch does not have to run exactly on time.

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