I don’t purport to be an expert in Japanese fiction, but it has been an ongoing interest of mine since I first stumbled across Yukio Mishima’s powerful short story, “Patriotism” when I was in high school. His Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is another of his great offerings. When I went back to school at tender age of 38 to finish my bachelor’s degree, on my way to becoming a librarian, I took an excellent class called “The Modern Japanese Novel and the West” which expanded and cemented my interest and appreciation of the literature of Japan. It further explored the tension between the traditional and the pull of the the west and what Japan was becoming in the post-war era. It was a great course and and great teacher, (Professor Janet A. Walker), and a wonderful reading list that included: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s “The Tattoo” and “The Makioka Sisters”; Kōbō Abe’s mysterious “The Woman in the Dunes”; Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro”; Kawabata Yasunari’s “The Sound of the Mountain”; Kojima Nobuo’s “The American School” and many more.
I haven’t read much of that recently, so when I picked up the new Haruki Murakami novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I was blown away. There has been plenty written about it all over the web and in every major (and minor) book reviewing source – check out the great Patti Smith’s terrific review from the August 5, 2014 New York Times – but here’s my 2 cents.
There is something amazingly compelling Murakami’s unique tone, a kind of ‘quietness’, a contemplative interior world played out in short direct sentences. The plot pulls you along but it’s the underlying imagery, the colors (and colorlessness), and a uniquely Japanese flavor that makes it such a compelling and powerful book. It’s about loss and love and friendship and dreams and death… and trains… and food….
and music too…. there’s an ongoing theme that references Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” Years of Pilgrimage (Années de pèlerinage in the original French) as played the Russian pianist Lazar Berman. The piece is a set of three suites for solo piano and this is the First Year: Switzerland, published in 1855.
Take a listen – it evokes the same solitary, quietness as the novel. Liszt himself wrote in the introduction to the suite that the history, poetry and nature of the places he saw when he traveled, “stirred deep emotions in (his) soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication,” not unlike the connections between characters that Murakami weaves so skillfully. Like just the right wine that pairs with and enhances a meal, it’s the perfect compliment to the tale of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.