Tsukuru Tazaki is 36 years old, has an obsession with train stations and a successfull career building them. Apart from that, he leads a solitary and lonely life in Tokyo. He doesn’t connect to people around him and has no sense of belonging. When he meets 38-year old Sara, a travel agent, he starts to open up for the first time in years. After their second date however she tells him that in order to start a relationship, he must first go back into his past and solve the mystery that haunts him to this day.
In his youth, Tsukuru is a part of a close circle of friends, so close in fact he calls it a „collective entity“. The other members of the circle are two girls, Shiro and Kuro, and two boys, Aka and Ao. Each of the four has a color in their name: black, white, red and blue Only Tsukuru is colorless in name – and, as he feels, also in character. Nevertheless, the five of them are inseparable all the way through high school and even stay in close touch when Tsukuru moves to Tokyo to follow his dream of becoming an expert in train station engineering. In his second year of college however, something traumatic happens:
Out of the blue, his four friends abandon him. When he finally reaches one of them, he is told never to contact them again – „you know the reason“.
Tsukuru’s world collapses. He can’t find any explanation for this sudden change – but is afraid to ask. He returns to his college, but falls into a deep depression and spends the next six months closer to death than to life. Only due to his strong sense of self control he manages to slowly return back life, however stays distant to most people he encounters and settles into a solitary life – until he meets Sara.
Sara encourages him to find the reason why his friends had cut him off all those years ago – and armed with their addresses, Tsukuru sets out on a dark journey taking him deep into his past and as far as Finland to finally figure out why his friends had abandoned him all these years ago.
A world beyond reality
If you are familiar with Murakami’s writing style, you know his unique way of meandering between reality and non-reality. In some of books, the protagonist has to wander between the real world and some fantastic realm, in others, the dream world has strong effects onto reality. Although the book is less surreal than some of his former works (e.g. Hard Boiled Wonderland or 1Q84), dream passages again play an important role – in an especially haunting scene, Tsukuru’s only other friend in life, Haida, appears in his room at night while Tsukuru is unable to move a single muscle.
Murakami’s language is unique and beautiful. His descriptions are very clear, and some of the things he describes makes you exclaim: „This! This exactly!“ For example, Tsukuru describes the feeling of being abandoned by „being cast over board at night into an ice cold ocean“. Beautiful, right?
Music and color
As often in his books, a piece of music appears again and again. This time, it is „le mal du pays“, a melancholy piano piece by Liszt. The French expression literally translates it as homesickness, but the precise meaning is much deeper – Murakami lets a character in the book describe it as „the fathomless sadness the view of a beautiful countryside can cause in a human heart“. If you listen to the piece, you realize why it has such a profound effect on Tsukuru: The piece elicits a quiet yearning – and its main theme contains of four notes, the number of friends he never stops yearning for.
It is also not a coincidence Murakami chose the four colors black, white, red and blue as names for the four friends. In Japanese mythology, these colors symbolise darkness and light, clarity and vagueness. Over time, these meanings evolved further. Three of the four colors are connected to religion: Red came to be associated with authority and wealth, white with godliness and purity, black with dignity and formality, but also with mystery and night. Blue on the other hand is associated with ordinary life.
When we follow Tsukuru on his journey into his past and towards his friends, we recognize these symbols again and again along the way – I’ll let you discover it for yourself.
The book is Murakamis most successful yet – in Japan, it sold over one Million copies in the first week. The German translation is already available, the English one is announced for August. The topics of friendship, love, betrayal, guilt and loss are universal, yet there is something that feels distinctively Japanese about this book. So go mark August 16th on your calendar and reserve a copy!