Discussion for Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami (1949- )

As promised, I am posting the questions Random House gave us for the purpose of discussing Haruki Murakami’s latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. So many questions seem rather a lot, so I’m going to choose to address only a few. Feel free to choose any you like, and respond here in the comment section or on your own blog. May the discussion commence!

 

1.   What is the significance of the name of the novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? Why is Tsukuru branded “colorless”? Would you say that this an accurate description of him? Is this how Tsukuru sees himself or is it how he is seen by others? What kind of pilgrimage does Tsukuru embark upon and how does he change as a result of this pilgrimage? What causes these changes?

 

I think that before Tsukuru went on his pilgrimage, he was colorless. Consider this quote from early in the novel, “Tsukuru Tazaki was the only one in the group without anything special about him. His grades were slightly above average. He wasn’t especially interested in academics, though he did pay close attention during class and always made sure to do the minimum amount of practice and review needed to get by…He didn’t mind sports but was never interested enough to join a team…He had no deep interest in the arts, no hobby or special skill. He was, if anything, a bit taciturn; he blushed easily, wasn’t especially outgoing, and could never relax around people he’d just met. Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.”  In comparison to his friends, in comparison to a life he could be living boldly, Tsukuru is indeed colorless.

 

2.   Why does Tsukuru wait so many years before attempting to find out why he was banished from the group? How does he handle the deep depression he feels as a result of this rejection and how is he changed by this period of suffering? Is Tsukuru the only character who suffers in this way? If not, who else suffers at what is the cause? Do you believe that their distress could have been avoided? If so, how?

 

I think that Tsukuru lacks the courage to attempt to find out the particulars about his banishment. He was wounded so deeply, he simply could not face the rejection; in the face of that wound it must not have really mattered why his friends rejected him, as much as the fact that they did.

 

How can only one person be affected when relationships fail? All suffered, even if not quite as acutely as Tsukuru did. In his rejection, their bond of unity was broken.

 

3.   Do you consider Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki a realistic work of fiction? Why or why not? What fantastical or surreal elements does Murakami employ in the novel and what purpose do they serve? What do these elements reveal that strictly realistic elements might not? Kuro says, “I do think that sometimes a certain kind of dream can be even stronger than reality” (310). In considering genre, do you believe that this is true?

 

To me, the dreams in this novel were not real; they did not really happen. I think they were Tsukuru’s subconscious at work, that many times we suppress ways we really feel, or thoughts we really think, and they come back to us in dreams until we sort them out. The dreams very power perhaps make them “stronger than reality”, but only because of the hold they have on our emotions.

 

4.   Tsukuru reveals that his father chose his name, which means “to make things.” Is this an apt name for Tsukuru? Why or why not? How does Tsukuru’s understanding of his own name affect the way that he sees himself? Where else in the story does the author address making things? Are they portrayed as positive or useful activities?

 

5.   Why is Tsukuru’s friendship with Haida so important? What is the outcome of this relationship? How does the relationship ultimately affect Tsukuru’s perception of himself? Does it alter Tsukuru’s response to the rejection he was subjected to years earlier in any way?

 

6.   Why does Haida share with Tsukuru the story about his father and the strange piano player who speaks of death? What might this teach us about the purpose of storytelling? How does Tsukuru react to this story? Is he persuaded by Haida’s tale? What does the story teach us about belief and the power of persuasion?

 

7.   Sara says that we live in an age where “we’re surrounded by an enormous amount of information about other people. If you feel like it, you can easily gather than information about them. Having said that, we still hardly know anything about people” (148). Do the characters in the story know each other very well? Do you believe that technology in today’s world has helped or hindered us in knowing each other better?

 

8.   When Tsukuru finally sees three of his friends again, how have each of them changed? How do they react to seeing one another after all this time? Are their reactions strange and unexpected or predictable? What unexpected changes have taken place over the years, and why are they surprising to Tsukuru? Has anything remained consistent?

 

9.   When Tsukuru visits the pizzeria in Finland, how does he react after realizing he is the only one there who is alone? How is this different from his usual response to isolation throughout the story? Discuss what this might indicate about the role that setting plays in determining Tsukuru’s emotional state.

 

10.   Does Tsukuru’s self-image and understanding of his role within the group align with how they saw Tsukuru and perceived his role in their group? If not, what causes differences in their perceptions? Do Tsukuru’s thoughts about his rejection from the group align with his friends’ understanding of why he was banished? How did Tsukuru’s banishment affect the other members of the group?

 

11.   Why do Tsukuru and Kuro say that they may be partly responsible for Shiro’s murder? Do you believe that the group did the right thing by protecting Shiro? Why or why not?

 

12.   The Franz Liszt song “Le mal du pays” is a recurring motif in the novel. Shiro plays the song on the piano; Haida leaves a recording of it behind; Tsukuru listens to it again and again; Kuro also has a recording. Why might the author have chosen to include this song in particular in the story? What effect does its repetition have on the reader—and the characters in the novel?

 

“Le mal du pays” is a song with a haunting melody. And, any song that we hear during a particular time in our lives never really leaves us. Don’t you have the experience, when you listen to such a song, that you’re back in that moment? You can almost physically feel the time, the memory, the people you were with. I think this song carried such meaning for Tsukuru not only because of its beauty, but because of the import it had in his life from the people who meant something to him.

 

Also, Haida tells him, ” ‘Le mal du pays.’ It’s French. Usually it’s translated as ‘homesickness,’ or ‘melancholy.’ If you put a finer point on it, it’s more like ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.’ It’s a hard expression to translate accurately.” What better piece of music to accompany Murakami’s themes of sadness and alienation?

 

(I was so moved by what Haida says later, about Lazar Berman playing Franz Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage suite ‘Year 1: Switzerland’ that I bought a copy for myself, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. “A Russian, Lazar Berman. When he plays Liszt it’s like he’s painting a delicately imagined landscape. Most people see Liszt’s piano music as more superficial, and technical. Of course, he has some tricky pieces, but if you listen very carefully to his music you discover a depth to it that you don’t notice at first. Most of the time it’s hidden behind all the embellishments. This is particularly true of the Years of Pilgrimage suites. There aren’t many living pianists who can play it accurately and with such beauty. Among more contemporary pianists, Berman gets it right, and with the older pianists I’d have to go with Claudio Arrau.”)

 

13.   Sara tells Tsukuru: “You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them” (44). What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her statement?

 

I highlighted this quote every time that it appeared in the novel, and I’ve counted at least three. This quote has particular significance to me because when my first husband left his son and I in 1997, I could not bear any memory of our life together. I threw out whole photo albums, and boxes of letters he’d written to me. I was foolish enough to think that in discarding the memory, I could erase the time.

 

It is not that simple, and even the memories don’t stay hidden for long.

 

I don’t believe we can erase either the memories, or the history, of our lives.

 

14. Kuro says that she believes an evil spirit had inhabited Shiro, and as Tsukuru is leaving her home, Kuro tells him not to let the bad elves get him. Elsewhere in the story, the piano player asks Haida’s father whether he believes in a devil. Does the novel seem to indicate whether there is such a thing as evil—existing apart from mankind, or is darkness characterized as an innate part of man’s psyche?

 

15.   While visiting Kuro, Tsukuru comes to the realization “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds” (322). This, he says, “is what lies at the root of true harmony.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree with his statement?

 

16.   Why does Tsukuru seem to be so interested in railroad stations? How does his interest in these stations affect his relationship with his high school friends? Later in his life, how does this interest affect his understanding of friendship and relationships? The author revisits Tsukuru’s interest in railroad stations at the end of the book and refers to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways in 1995 great disaster of 3/11 in Japan. Why do you think that Murakami makes mention of this incident? Does this reference change your interpretation of the story?

 

I have read Murakami’s book Underground which tells of the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo. I think the reference to that incident applies to Tsukuru because innocent people are often the victim of someone else’s cruelty. The question becomes not, “Why did I suffer this way?” but “How can I get through it with courage and grace?”  Tsukuru was as innocent as those who were gassed, yet he suffered terribly at the hands of others who care mostly about their own agenda.

 

17.   Is Tsukuru’s decision with respect to Sara at the end of the story indicative of some kind of personal progress? What is significant about his gesture? How has Tsukuru changed by the story’s end? Do you believe that the final scene provides sufficient resolution of the issues raised at the start of the story? Does it matter that readers are not ultimately privy to Sara’s response to Tsukuru’s gesture?

 

18.   Tsukuru wishes that he had told Kuro, “Not everything was lost in the flow of time” (385). What does he believe was preserved although time has gone by? What did the members of the group ultimately gain through their friendship despite their split?

 

19. How does Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki compare to Haruki Murakami’s earlier novels? What themes do the works share? What elements of Murakami’s latest novel are different or unexpected?

 

I find that this novel has many themes that are prevalent in Haruki’s writing: loneliness, depression, and alienation are all present here as well as in Kafka on The Shore, Hear The Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973, and especially Norwegian Wood. For me, this book had many parallels to Norwegian Wood. In particular, I found a quote I’d copied from that book, “No body likes being alone that much. I don’t go out of my way to make friends, that’s all. It just leads to disappointment.”  This quote alone seems to sum up so much of the way Tzukuru felt before he went on his pilgrimage. Thank goodness Sara told him, “You need to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional. not to see what you want to see, but what you must see. Otherwise you’ll carry around that baggage for the rest of your life.”

 

 

 

As for you, do you agree with any of these thoughts? Do you have something you’d like to add or address which I’ve left out? I’d be so glad to read what you have to say.

Do You Like My New Blog Home?

You may or may not be surprised at arriving here. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you know that, contrary to my nature in real life, in blog land I’m the Queen of Change. Headers, templates, fonts, it makes little difference; there’s often a change when you land on Dolce Bellezza.

But, this time it’s a big one. This time I’ve pointed my custom domain to WordPress instead of Blogger. Why? Because Blogger is, in my opinion, singularly unhelpful in giving customer support. I have been trying to renew my domain since August 3, and I’ve been circling through forums and pages for weeks. I’ll spare you the full story, but suffice it to say I got no where.

I did, however, receive a plethora of anonymous comments because when you turn off word verification every robot in the world finds your site to spam.

Anyway here I am, with a beautiful header of a street in Italy, and if you look closely you’ll see the word “libreria” in the bottom right. What better shop to have in a book blogger’s header than a bookstore? My husband said to please not leave “the laying down woman” off, and so I have added her circle to give us something familiar.

I’m comfortable with this. I hope it doesn’t jar you too much, and I hope to write endlessly fascinating posts soon. But for now, I’m just glad to have a new blog home. I hope you like it, too.

Sunday Salon: September is…

Oh friends, you have no idea how this 70 degree weekend is like the Balm of Gilead to my soul. Friday held indescribable heat in my second story classroom, a veritable pizza oven for the children and me. By 10:30 the downstairs hallways were filled with classrooms trying to cool off, and I decided it was best to suffer in silence in our own room. At least it was quiet. At least our semi-melted crayons were in reach, and I could show them books from my own rocker.
One of the books we discussed, in looking at how our perspective changes as we read, was Henry and The Kite Dragon by Bruce Edward Hall. It is based on a true story, and if you haven’t read it yourself, or to a child you love, I strongly suggest that you do.
Which brings us to Aarti’s challenge beginning September 14 (click on the banner for more information):
Because I read so much translated literature, it is not hard for me to find a novel written by “a person of color.” I have a plethora of books in Japanese literature, and I’d love to reread Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street because I read not one book by a female author for Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month a few months ago. Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Isabelle Allende, are all Spanish authors I’ve loved. But, I think I’ll read Empress Orchid by Anchee Min for next week, and perhaps Small Island by Andrea Levy if I have time before September ends.
Of course, don’t forget to come back and chat about Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage on September 12. I will put up a few final thoughts I have about this marvelous book, and the discussions questions presented by Random House. Feel free to answer any of them that appeal to you, and know that I treasure the discussion that reading together affords.
Until then, may your week to come be cool.
Literally.

The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojastaczer

The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer is ostensibly a novel about a shiva held for mathematician Rachela Karnakovitch. But it is much more than describing the seven days one sits in honor of the loss of a loved one. No, this novel is an homage to mathematicians and scientists, Russia and America, mothers and fathers, but most of all to courage and strength.

It is told through the narrative of Sasha, Rachela’s son, interspersed with chapters from her own memoir. We catch a glimpse of what it meant to have lived through the war, suffering under Stalin’s terrible hand. Yet that which does not kill us, can only make us stronger. Or, as my mother would say to me, “Courage grows strong in a wound.”

Rachela learns mathematics as a child, an eleven year old girl who is close to starvation. Through the deprivation she endured, and the brilliant mind she possessed, she became adept at solving complex mathematical problems. Her life was unique as a Soviet defector, a Jew, and a woman who was a genius in mathematics.

She writes in her memoir, “I needed a war to make me into a mathematician. I needed deprivation to make me appreciate every little gift, every tiny increment-like a crumb of food, yes-of understanding while solving a problem. I don’t believe a spoiled child, even one encouraged to pursue the intellectual world, can ever be anything more than a second-rate mathematician. This is what war gave me, a life of the mind that would sustain me almost always.”

It took a great deal of courage to sustain herself. As a child she left Russia with her parents; as a young mother she defected to America certain that her husband and son would find a way to follow. 

When she dies from lung cancer at the age of 70, the problem faced by her son is how to keep her funeral from “turning into a Russian theatrical tragedy.” A private ceremony is not possible; the great mathematical minds of Rachela’s world insist on sitting shiva with her family, for they are convinced that her solution to the famously difficult Navier-Stokes problem lies somewhere in her home.

The dialogue, the relationships, the insight into family life in general, and the minds of incredibly strong women in particular, is what makes this novel shine. It is a novel I devoured in one day, making my Labor Day vacation one long to be remembered. This is one of the most spectacular novels I have read this year, for I feel that Stuart Rojstaczer has written what it means to be an immigrant with incredible determination finding one’s way in America. He has written of American strengths and idiosyncrasies with an appraising eye. He has written of a son’s love for his mother, for his family, for his history with a tenderness that almost makes me weep. Except for the parts where I laughed with joy at the connection I found between his family and my own.

The Wishing Tide by Barbara Davis

It’s a hard thing to forgive those who wound us, but harder still to forgive the wounds we inflict upon ourselves.”

The Wishing Tide has a story you would expect by looking at the cover. Lonesome-woman-whose-heavy-heart-has-her-grappling-with-the-tides-of-life and that sort of thing. I normally don’t read this genre, a book clearly belonging to that of “women’s literature”. 
But.
It’s a rainy, humid Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and I find myself unexpectedly drawn in to the story of Lane; her affection for an apparently crazy old woman who sits on the beach; and Michael, the man who has come to Lane’s Bed and Breakfast with more baggage than just his suitcase.
Their story is an intricately woven one, with plenty of grief for each of the characters involved. There are threads of wondering about one’s past and second guessing one’s choices. There are threads of having enough courage to go forward. But the best thread of all has to do with forgiveness. Without that, we are immobile. 
Without forgiveness, the tide can carry us anywhere it wishes, for we have given up the rudder that guides us forward. 
Praise for The Wishing Tide:
“Everything I love in a novel: a coastal setting so rich you can practically taste the salt in the air and feel the sand under foot, an old inn, and a deeply-felt and explored love story with a smart, relatable heroine and a handsome hero with a mysterious past. Atmospheric, suspenseful and very romantic, The Wishing Tide is elegant and haunting proof that secrets buried in the heart will always rise to the surface.”—Erika Marks, author of It Comes in Waves
“A captivating read about fighting for the life you want and daring to believe that happily-ever-after can exist outside of fairytales. Set on a desolate, storm-tossed North Carolina barrier island lush with family secrets, madness, and ghost stories, this lyrical novel will haunt you from the first page to the last.”—Barbara Claypole White award-winning author of The In-Between Hour
“Beautiful and haunting….Filled with wonderful descriptions of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, The Wishing Tide is a book about love and loss and finding your way forward. I could not read it fast enough!”—Anita Hughes, author of Lake Como

Short on Patience, Short on Time

If you had any idea, even vaguely, of how hot it’s been in my classroom this week then you would understand why I haven’t put up a post since Tuesday, let alone visited any of yours.
I’m sorry.
The pencils above give a pretty good indication of how things are going all around. The dear children in my class are driven to distraction with the humidity in a corner room, closed off to any possible air circulation with windows that don’t open for everyone’s “safety” in a school with no air conditioning whatsoever.
The children have been sharpening their pencils in between my lessons. When I saw them, I had to laugh. “Hand them over,” I said, “so I can take a picture.”
Needless to say, there’s not been much reading Chez Bellezza. Taking baths and going to bed at 8:30, yes. Reading from my stack of glorious books? Not so much.
But, it’s Labor Day Weekend. And I’ll be free of Labor for at least three days. Surely in that time I can post on the books I’ve received this week: The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojsyaczer, River by Michael Ferris Smith, and We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. Surely I can come by to see what you’ve been doing while I’ve been sweating.

The First Day of School

This is the school district’s plan for keeping cool as we have no air conditioning.
But it doesn’t rob me of the joy of fresh pencils ready to write new ideas,
glue sticks and
64 fairly sharp crayons for art projects.
This Granny Smith is not for the teacher, but for a project later in the day involving paints,
and all my ideas are being recorded in this Moleskine binder with my Rhodia pencils made of linden wood.
I can’t tell you how excited I am for a brand new year. Teaching never, ever
gets old.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: Initial ThoughtsAfter My First Time Through

The first sentence is rather shocking. “From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.” It’s not exactly a hopeful beginning, and yet right from the beginning we are in touch with a familiar theme of Murakami’s: despair.
Tsukuru Tazaki’s despair is born of loneliness, a legitimate feeling since his four closest friends have abandoned him with no explanation. He is left wondering what he could have done to be rejected so completely, and having not even the strength to ask for explanations, he retreats to Tokyo.
As Tsukuru reflects on his four friends, he feels empty and isolated by comparison. One of the reasons is that each of the four had a name containing a color.  “The two boys’ last names were Akamatsu-which means “red pine”- and Oumi-“blue sea”; the girls’ family names where Shirane- “white root”-and Kurono-“black field.” Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this fact made him feel a little bit left out.”

Even though Tsukuru’s name does not have a color, it does have significance; tuskuru means “to make or build.” It is a name which perfectly fits a character who is able to build train stations, and more importantly, who must build meaning into his life again. 

While Tsukuru Tazaki swims laps at a pool in Tokyo, he meets a new friend, Haida (whose name means literally, “gray field”. And he also meets Sara, who is the impetus behind his pilgrimage. She knows that he cannot carry on without knowing the reason for his expulsion from the group, and it is she who encourages him to meet each one of the friends sixteen years later. Three times, by Chapter 11, this quote is given, “You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.” 

Tsukuru’s pilgrimage is to find out why he was rejected. But more importantly than that, in my opinion, it is to find the strength to carry on regardless of the past. His pilgrimage is to put the past to rest, while bravely embracing the future with a confidence which has been dormant for far too long.

(I plan on rereading this book before September 12, on which I will post the discussion questions put forth by Random House. From there, those who have read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage are welcome to answer any of the questions they choose. Please know now much I enjoy the discussion we began with the book cover yesterday. I look forward to more insight from your comments and reviews in the weeks to come.)

What’s This? The Latest Murakami I’ve Been Waiting For? Details About The Physical Book Itself

How surprised I was to find the little cellophane windows which are indeed colorless:
Underneath each clear stripe is a color indicating one of the main characters, with Tsukuru’s leaning off to one side. Rather alone, clearly separate.
The cover under the dust jacket “reveals” more about the characters, particularly Tsukuru who loves train stations.
And did you notice this? Every page number “4” is white.
Here’s a number without 4 (above),

…and here’s one with double 4.  If you flip through the pages you’ll see that every 4 is white. Colorless? I’m not sure yet, as I have about fifty pages to go.
I’ve been marking passages as I read, ever so slowly on purpose, and I will put up an initial post probably in a few hours knowing we will talk about it more thoroughly in days to come.

And I won’t mention the rip in the dust jacket ever again. (Thank you, amazon.com)

Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

“He had little choice of means, whether fair or foul, because of his helpless circumstances. If he chose honest means, he would undoubtedly starve to death beside the wall or in the Sujaki gutter. He would be brought to this gate and thrown away like a stray dog. If he decided to steal…his mind, after making the same detour time and again, came finally to the conclusion that he would be a thief.”


The servant whom this paragraph describes has been dismissed because of the declining economy. He waits under the Roshomon gate for the rain to cease and ponders his circumstances. Should he be honest and die? Or should he be a thief and live? He seems to feel that these are the only two choices available to him.
When he sees a light go on above him, he discovers an old hag pulling out the hair of a corpse, beautiful hair that she plans to make into a wig which can be sold for food. Is she a thief?
Does it matter if we take from a person who is alive or dead? In the taking are we automatically categorized as a thief?
He is filled with hatred, and yet he decides that if the old woman can take from the corpse, who sold snake flesh as dried fish while living, he can take from her.
When the hag looks for him through the gray locks of her hair, all she can see is darkness. It seems to be the darkness of hopelessness; an endless circle of using another for one’s own good.

“The Rashomon was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was 106 feet wide and 26 feet deep, and was topped with a ridge pole; it’s stone -wall rose 75 feet high. This gate  was constructed in 789 when the capital of Japan was transferred to Kyoto. With the decline of West Kyoto, the gate fell into bad repair, cracking and crumbling in many places, and became a hideout for thieves and robbers and a place for abandoning unclaimed corpses.” (Tuttle edition)


I read this story for the Japanese Literature Challenge 8 and the Deal Me In short story challenge.