Taking a Midnight Swim: A Review of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” by Haruki Murakami


By Curtis Cole

International sensation Haruki Murakami is back with his latest book “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”. After his magnum opus “1Q84”, a delightful science-fiction-fantasy concoction spanning three volumes, Murakami’s latest effort is a return to more humble origins; recalling the emotional turmoil of novels such as “After Dark” (2008) and “South of the Border, West of the Sun” (2000), Colorless is a return to the every day: self-esteem, love, and friendship. The ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships all weigh heavily on this work’s threads. A fabric whose very fiber exudes rich philosophical meditation.

It is a tale of existential crisis; in high Murakami fashion, Colorless begins with a poignant musing: suicide. The protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, is cast out of his group of friends during his sophomore year of university—perhaps giving new meaning to the term ‘Sophomore Slump’—and enters a deep depression. Losing great swaths of weight, drinking regularly, and faring poorly in school, Tazaki barely survives apostate status. Describing his struggle as though being “hurled into the night sea” (302)[1], without anyone knowing of his misfortune, the plot of Colorless is one in which anyone ‘on the outside looking in’ can appreciate.

For years, Tazaki attempts to bury his intense feelings of hurt. His group of high school friends was his whole world—a perfect, closed circle which gave him everything he needed. So when he was excluded, later discovered due to a false accusation, the novel’s threads give credence to existential philosopher Martin Heidegger’s preoccupation with what he calls chatter (Gerede[2]) as forming a Fallen discourse which acts as an obstruction to Dasein’s ability to interpret the world, since Tazaki can only muddle on through life, trying his best to cover up old wounds, while his Dasein, his human-ness, as Heidegger would conceptualize it, lives an inauthentic existence due to its inability to get ‘ahead-of-itself’ and begin to interpret the world around itself in order to decide what path to next peruse. With Tazaki’s emotional scars affecting a semi-permanent despondent mood, the following sixteen years afford Tazaki nothing but trouble with friendships and dating; something seems to be holding him back from truly being himself, of establishing what Heideggerians dub as ‘care’, that metaphysical condition in which Dasein ‘wonders what to do next’. Enter Sara, a romantic interest who convinces Tazaki to allow her to research and locate his old friends—restoring the role of discourse to its proper realm as talk (rede), enabling a new multiplicity of options for Tazaki to existentially consider—so that he will be able to confront his old compatriots and finally heal those wounds from so long ago, just maybe giving himself a shot at a normal relationship with another person: his emotional chains no longer obstructing his authenticity.

Without spoiling details of the novel, which would ruin most of the book, I can say that Colorless took me by surprise in more way than one. It seems to be Murakami’s most mature work yet; many of his fans recognize his works from his wry humor, the multitude of pop culture references, and musings of a deep nature which just so happen to utilize thinkers from Voltaire to Star Wars. For the majority of Colorless, however, humor and pop culture references are few and far between. Yes, there are some amusing inclusions late in the novel but for the majority the reader is left with a piece of literature on the borderline of “pure”, or “high”, literature.

Colorless refines Murakami’s style. One still reads meditations on sex, (in)authentic living, all while finding philosophy transcribed as conversation within the margins, but it has been reoriented toward a deeper cause than his previous, largely casual effort; the majority of the book reads as a conversation, switching off between an omniscient narrator and Tazaki’s own inner monologue. The existential dilemma of living according to the “they” takes center-stage and fuses with the profound emotional conceptualization of the protagonist’s efforts to set himself right and take account for his life. Done with Murakami’s usual poetically minimalist grace, these Pure literary aspects easily dislodge the so-called “low cultural” aspects, which show up only rarely (those self-referential moments concerning popular culture which Murakami is so known for), and convince the reader that Colorless is a work announcing to the world that this project was of a deep value to the author, and so foregone the mass marketed plots and sub-plots which make for easy dollar fodder.

Needless to say, there are no car chases.

At its core, Colorless is about self-discovery and healing. With a plethora of red herrings, (possibly) interrelated themes and motifs, and a few simple backstories to augment the primary thread, a student of literary criticism would have their fair share of topics to grapple with should they delve into untangling the nature of this text. Perhaps Colorless is a signal that Murakami will be shifting his writing style for future books, or maybe he just needed to tell a tale that had been echoing in his mind for some years. Either way, any fan of Murakami’s writings should not hesitate to pick up a copy and decide for themselves.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami

384 Pages. Published by Random House. $10.88 (Kindle). 2014.


[1] Page citations refer to the Kindle version of the novel.

[2] Words in parenthesis denote the original German.

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