For over thirty years I’ve been a fan of David Bowie. Throughout the seventies he produced a series of albums that remain unrivalled in creativity and variety, culminating with Let’s Dance entering the mainstream in 1983. Only once, however, have I seen him live, and that was on the Glass Spider tour in 1987 at Roker Park in Sunderland. That tour, and the album that it was promoting, Never Let Me Down, is generally regarded as being far from Bowie’s finest hour. There was a sense that he was uncertain where to go next and instead cannibalising previous ideas (most obviously the spider reference) in a way that was dangerously close to caricaturing them.
And so to Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (and that’s the last time you’ll hear that in full). Like Bowie, Murakami has gone from having a devoted cult following to global superstar – well, in book terms at least. And, similarly, his new novel seems to show an artist struggling with his own legend. When its title was first released their were many comments about how ‘Murakami-like’ it was (a quick glance at my bookshelves shows this simply isn’t true) but to me it sounds more like a parody of a Murakami title, reaching back to an earlier hit (Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – the only other title with ‘and’ in it) and drawing heavy-handed attention to symbolic elements of the novel.
The set-up itself is intriguing, as it always is with Murakami: Tazaki is part of a close-knit group of five teenage friends. He alone leaves Nagoya for Tokyo to study but is still surprised when the other four drop him entirely and refuse to see or even speak to him:
“I’m sorry but I have to ask you not to call any of us anymore.”
No explanation is offered and it is only years later, encouraged by a new girlfriend, Sara, that Tazaki decides he needs to discover what caused this breach. (If this was a realist novel we would assume it was simply because Tazaki is one of the most boring characters ever created, however, this is Murakami and we expect a more metaphysical solution, as indicated by the fact that his four friends all have colours in their names, while he is ‘colourless’). The novel charts his investigation into his own past as he tracks down his friends and visits them, while at the same time recounting his relationship with Sara which becomes increasingly important to him.
Thrown in alongside this is the story of another failed friendship, a story told by that character’s father about death, a series of dreams (especially sex dreams) and various musical references, particularly to Franz Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. It would be unreasonable to criticise the novel for not choreographing all of these into a comprehensive world view. Murakami has explicitly stated he is not an analytical novelist and has always been more suggestive than schematic. However I worry that some of these elements are appearing because he feels his readers expect them.
Haida’s father’s story was very Murakami but only its inclusion of references to colour seem at all connected to the narrative, and they seem out of place in the story itself. We are told:
“Each individual has their own unique colour, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight.”
Are we to assume that Tazaki is (metaphorically?) dead (colourless)? That his journey is that of return from the underworld? We are told (and much of the novel feels like telling) after his friends disown him that:
“For five months after he returned to Tokyo, Tsukuru lived at death’s door. He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss.”
This reading is hampered, however, by Tazaki’s unchanging nature – the Tazaki of the final pages seems very like the Tazaki of the first.
The references to ‘Years of Pilgrimage’, and in particular ‘Le mal du pays’ (homesickness) seem intended to highlight the novel’s concern with home. Tazaki speculates:
“He had no place he had to go, no place to come back to. He never did, and he didn’t now.”
But picking out these ideas makes the novel seem more coherent than it is, and where Murakami in the past has made up for a lack of coherence with imagination and narrative power, the story itself is ultimately rather dull, not to mention often poorly written, with some jarring images (“he’d swallowed a hard lump lf cloud”; “their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest”) which cannot be blamed on the translator, Philp Gabriel (though I am blaming him for: “I am too telling the truth”). The novel has a sentimental idealisation of teenage friendship, and a Freudian level fear of sexual fantasy – in that sense it would, perhaps, make a good pop song. Murakami certainly seems to have adopted a pedestrian version of Bowie’s ‘cut-up’ approach to lyrics.
(Of course, were you to ask me how I felt about that concert 27 years ago, I would tell you that I loved it).