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On Haruki Murakami’s new novel: Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” turned extravaganza

by Saku Masui  

It’s not unusual for the title of a Haruki Murakami work to refer to a piece of music. “Norwegian Wood,” for example, or “South of the Border, West of the Sun.” Even when the title makes no such overt reference, music may be featured memorably in the narrative itself, as with Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta in Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, his latest novel released on April 12, 2013, contains the following passage:

 “As they’re listening to a piano recording, Tsukuru realizes he’s heard it a number of times before. He doesn’t know the title. Nor who the composer is. It’s a quiet, mournful piece. A leisurely opening theme of strong single notes. Then a softer variation. He looks up from his book and asks Haida, ‘What’s this music?'” (p. 62)

Tsukuru Tazaki’s friend Haida identifies it as “La Mal du Pays” from the first of Franz Liszt’s three suites known collectively as Years of Pilgrimage, played by the pianist Lazar Berman.

According to Universal Music, the distributor of this particular recording, copies of the existing CD sold out almost immediately after the publication of Murakami’s novel, and a new release is planned for May. With the CD temporarily out of stock, the alternative is downloads, and indeed, by April 15, Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage had leapt to the top of the mp3 album bestseller list at Amazon.co.jp.

Needless to say, sales of the book itself have been off the charts. Publisher Bungeishunju Ltd. ordered an initial run of 300,000 copies, but in response to strong preorders restarted the presses three times before the book even went on sale, bringing the total number of copies available on the date of publication to 500,000. Booksellers found various ways of heightening the excitement—one holding a countdown event leading up to 12:00 AM on April 12, another stacking its display tables with 1,000 copies of the book, and so forth. Bungeishunju kept the presses running, and announced a mere seven days after publication that the book had reached the million-copy mark. With a gap of three years since Murakami’s last book, the third volume of 1Q84, the release of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage can be said to have generated more than the usual amount of hoopla. As far as Haruki Murakami is concerned, there are certainly no signs of deflation, nor does the oft-heard lament about declining book sales apply. As a reference, the hardcover edition of 1Q84 in three volumes sold a combined total of 3.66 million copies through April 2010, and the initial paperback printing of Book 1 alone was 1.45 million copies (March 30, 2012 figures).

As a key part of its marketing strategy, Bungeishunju successfully maintained a strict veil of secrecy about the content of the story. The first newspaper ad for the book, which appeared on February 16, stated only that a new novel by Haruki Murakami would be released in April—without even naming the title. The title was subsequently revealed, along with a few quotes from an author interview, but otherwise everything about the book was kept under wraps, including its cover design. Following the example of Shinchosha with 1Q84, no bound galleys were sent out, nor were any book signings scheduled. As I write this on April 18, the full text of the author interview has yet to be released, nor have there been any articles or video footage about it in the media.

The obi band wrapped around the cover of the book offers the following quotation “from an interview with the author”:

“On something of an impulse one day, I sat down at my desk and wrote the first few lines of the story, not knowing what might develop, what kind of characters would appear, or how long it might become—basically not knowing anything about where the story would lead—and then I just kept on writing for the next six months. All I really understood at first was what the world looked like, from his limited perspective, to this one man named Tsukuru Tazaki. But it was fascinating to see that view change bit by bit from one day to the next, growing both deeper and broader, and in some senses it really touched my heart.”

The opening line of the novel introduces protagonist Tsukuru Tazaki by saying that from July until January of his sophomore year in college, he spent most of his time thinking about killing himself.

“During those days, the idea of putting an end to his life seemed like the most natural and reasonable thing in the world. It still wasn’t very clear to him why he’d never ended up taking the final step. Especially since at that point in his life, crossing the threshold between life and death would have been easier than gulping down a raw egg.”

Having made it through that patch alive, Tsukuru is now 36. He remains unmarried, and lives alone in an apartment. As a child, he’d always loved to watch trains come and go at train stations, and he now works for a railway company in its architectural office. He sees designing and building stations as his personal “calling” (tsukuru means “make/build/create” in Japanese). His late father, who ran a successful real estate company, left him a substantial inheritance, allowing him to live very comfortably. He’s also reasonably good looking and has a girlfriend. In short, he appears to be a man who has everything. What could have so shattered his world all those years ago that he found himself thinking obsessively of death?

When he was in high school back in Nagoya, the city where he grew up, he had four best friends—two male and two female. The five of them did everything together and, like an equilateral pentagon, formed a “perfectly balanced unit”; they had developed a special “chemistry” among them. The other four all had references to a color in their surnames: Akamatsu (aka = red), Omi (written as ao-umi; ao = blue), Shirane (shira is a variant reading of shiro = white), and Kurono (kuro = black). With no such reference in his own name, Tsukuru had come to think of himself as lacking color or individuality, and being something of an “empty vessel.” After high school, Tsukuru was the only one to go on to college, moving to Tokyo to study civil engineering. When he returned to Nagoya in the summer of the following year, his four friends abruptly told him that they were breaking all ties with him—unilaterally, without explanation. Had the special chemistry been an illusion?

Sixteen years later, Tsukuru is dating Sara Kimoto, a woman two years his senior who works for a travel company. Having learned of how Tsukuru had been cut off by his friends, she asserts that he is still carrying emotional baggage from the incident, and urges him to look his friends up and ask them about what happened. “You have to face your past head on,” she says. “Not so you can see what you want to see, but to see what you need to see. Otherwise you’ll be carrying that heavy load for the rest of your life.” And so Tsukuru sets out to visit his former friends on a pilgrimage that takes him first to Nagoya and then to Helsinki.

“Since 1Q84 was such a roller-coaster of a story,” notes Murakami in a quote on the Bungeishuju website, “I wanted to write something that would be rather different from that.” Indeed, the structure of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, as well as its narrative style, contrast sharply with 1Q84, offering a more intimate feeling that seems reminiscent of Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart. We still encounter the erotic dreams, parallel worlds, dwarfs and such that are familiar from Murakami’s previous works, of course, even if what they signify is different. I would view the perfectly harmonious blend of mystery and fantasy that Murakami achieves here as a mark of his further maturation as an author.

Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, kare no junrei no toshi (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) by Haruki Murakami Bungeishunju, 2013, 370 pp., ISBN 978-4163821108

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Saku Masui (1967–) was born in Kobe and graduated from Kyoto University. In 1991 he joined The Nikkei, Japan’s leading economic daily, where he reported on business and stock market developments for a time before transferring to the cultural pages to take charge of book reviews and editorial duty for the serialized novels published in the paper. He left in 2004 to work for a publisher, and has since gone independent as a freelance writer and editor. He also teaches creative writing classes.