Of all the novels Haruki Murakami has ever published, I have read four. The first one was The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, followed by 1Q84, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage and finally Norwegian Wood.
What attracted me in Murakami’s novels were the uncanny, the dreamy touch and the simplicity with which he expresses complex feelings. It felt a bit like delving into a book that recreated the atmosphere that attracted me to David Lynch’s cinema, and that was all it took to hook me up.
It is the book that pushed Murakami onto the international scene, making the numbers of his readership drastically surge from thousands to millions. Fifth novel of the Japanese writer, published in 1987, it is also the most personal. Although most situations are purely fictional, a lot of elements are borrowed from the author’s past.
The settings, to start with, make it seem much more personal than any other books he’d written before: Tokyo, in the end of the politically troubled 1960’s where main character, twenty-year-old Toru Watanabe, seems to share a lot with twenty-year-old Murakami. First of all, Toru is a simple adolescent, who sees life in a rather rational way. It appears quite natural for Toru to look at the world and try to make sense of it, since his best friend Kizuki committed suicide when he was 17. He then develops complex feelings towards Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend. Friendship, attachment and eventually, what he thinks is love. Naoko, however, is torn apart between her feelings for him and the guilt she feels towards her dead boyfriend. Finally she decides to go to a mental institution where she will be cut off from the world. Meanwhile, Toru meets Midori, an eccentric girl in his class, who quickly becomes fond of him. The rest of the novel follows Toru, in a quest to discover who he really his and what he really wants.
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage:
Latest novel to date in Murakami’s broad collection of 13 long stories, this book tells the adventures of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man who remembers his troubled past.
Oddly, Tsukuru got expelled from his group of friends during his second year at University. Of all these friends, he was the only one with a name that did not include a colour, and that is part of the reason why he felt that he never belonged to that group. He then meets Sara, an attractive women, by two years his senior, whom he becomes engrossed with. She feels that something in his past is holding him, not allowing him to fully share his feelings. She encourages him to contact his estranged old friends that have all gone their separate ways, to discuss the circumstances that led them to exclude him from their community. Tsukuru quickly realises that what he had thought happened is not quite what he recalls and the truth can put on different masks.
Whereas the plots are somewhat different in the two novels, similarities can be drawn on themes and occurrences: for once, they both explore the past, where strong feelings and issues remain unresolved. Mental illness is an underpinning theme that is constantly present as is death.
What shocks the most is the absence of parental figures. Although they are often mentioned, they just appear as brief memories from the past, as if constantly thrown into the background or even completely ignored.
No wonder why both novels explore the past of the protagonist. Teenage years are those in which we defined ourselves. It is not uncommon for Murakami’s characters to find themselves in a dorm in the middle of Tokyo leading a sort of dull existence where Sundays is not hungover day but laundry day. A gloomy remembrance of “the good old days” that do not seem to have been so good for him, spent between reading Fitzgerald and his ironing board. He admits:
My own youth was far less dramatic, far more boring than that (Norwegian Wood). If I had simply written the literal truth of my own life, the novel would have been no more than 15 pages long.”
Memories, true or fantasised are central to Murakami’s universe. It can be seen at moments when dreams and reality mix, resulting in an uncanny and confusing experience for the protagonist. Parts with vividly described sex dreams, a recurring theme, often illustrate the main character’s confusion to distinguish what is real from what isn’t. But this is not relevant to Murakami. After all, what does it change to modify reality ? As Proust did it with his masterpiece ‘À la recherche du temps perdu‘, the giant of Japanese literature is only writing to illustrate the importance of recollection. Once the past has eluded us, what is left but memories? Why not use these to make sense of the present?