Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  Tsukuru was silent. Ao crushed the empty paper bag into a ball and rolled it around in his large hand.

  “Tsukuru, I believe you,” Ao said. “That you didn’t do anything to Shiro. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You’d never have done something like that.”

  As Tsukuru was wondering how to respond, “Viva Las Vegas!” blared out on Ao’s cell phone again. He checked the caller’s name and stuffed the phone back in his pocket.

  “I’m sorry, but I really need to get back to the office, back to hustling cars. Would you mind walking with me to the dealership?”

  They walked down the street, side by side, not speaking for a while.

  Tsukuru was the first to break the silence. “Tell me, why ‘Viva Las Vegas!’ as your ringtone?”

  Ao chuckled. “Have you seen that movie?”

  “A long time ago, on late-night TV. I didn’t watch the whole thing.”

  “Kind of a silly movie, wasn’t it?”

  Tsukuru gave a neutral smile.

  “Three years ago I was invited, as the top salesman in Japan, to attend a conference in Las Vegas for U.S. Lexus dealers. More of a reward for my performance than a real conference. After meetings in the morning, it was gambling and drinking the rest of the day. ‘Viva Las Vegas!’ was like the city’s theme song—you heard it everywhere you went. When I hit it big at roulette, too, it was playing in the background. Since then that song’s been my lucky charm.”

  “Makes sense.”

  “And the song’s been surprisingly helpful in my business. Older customers are happy when we’re talking and they hear that ringtone. You’re still so young, they ask, so why do you like that old song? Kind of an icebreaker, I guess. ‘Viva Las Vegas!’ isn’t one of Elvis’s legendary songs, of course. There are songs that are a lot more famous. But there’s something about it—something unexpected that gets people to open up. They can’t help but smile. I don’t know why, but there it is. Have you ever been to Las Vegas?”

  “No, never been,” Tsukuru said. “I’ve never been abroad, even once. But I’m thinking of going to Finland some time soon.”

  Ao looked taken aback. As he walked along, he kept his eyes fixed on Tsukuru.

  “Yeah, that might be nice. If I could, I’d like to go, too. I haven’t spoken with Kuro since her wedding. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but I used to like her.” Ao turned to face forward and took a few steps. “But I’ve got one and a half kids now, and a busy job. A mortgage and a dog I have to walk every day. I can’t see myself getting away to Finland. But if you see Kuro, tell her hello from me.”

  “I will,” Tsukuru said. “Before I do that, though, I’m thinking of going to see Aka.”

  “Ah,” Ao said. An ambiguous look came over his face. His facial muscles twitched in an odd way. “I haven’t seen him lately.”

  “How come?”

  “Do you know what kind of work he’s doing now?”

  “Sort of,” Tsukuru replied.

  “I guess I shouldn’t be going into it here. I don’t want to bias you before you see him. All I can say is that I’m not too fond of what he’s doing. Which is partly why I don’t see him very often. Unfortunately.”

  Tsukuru was silent, keeping pace with Ao’s long strides.

  “It’s not like I have doubts about him as a person. I have doubts about what he does. There’s a difference.” Ao sounded like he was convincing himself. “Maybe ‘doubts’ is the wrong word. I just don’t feel—comfortable with his way of thinking. Anyway, he’s become pretty famous in this town. He’s been on TV, in newspapers and magazines, as a real wheeler-dealer entrepreneur. He was featured in a women’s magazine as one of the ‘Most Successful Bachelors in Their Thirties.’ ”

  “ ‘Most Successful Bachelors’?” Tsukuru said.

  “I never saw that coming,” Ao said. “I would never have imagined him appearing in a women’s magazine.”

  “Tell me—how did Shiro die?” Tsukuru said, changing the subject.

  Ao came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street. He stood stock-still, like a statue. The people walking behind him nearly crashed into him. He stared straight at Tsukuru.

  “Hold on a second. You honestly don’t know how she died?”

  “How should I? Until last week I didn’t even know she was dead. Nobody told me.”

  “Don’t you ever read the newspaper?”

  “Sure, but I didn’t see anything about it. I don’t know what happened, but I’m guessing the Tokyo papers didn’t give it much coverage.”

  “Your family didn’t know anything?”

  Tsukuru shook his head.

  Ao, seemingly unnerved, faced forward again and resumed his quick pace. Tsukuru kept up with him. A moment later Ao spoke.

  “After Shiro graduated from music college she taught piano for a while from her house. She moved out, finally, to Hamamatsu, and was living alone. About two years later she was found, strangled to death, in her apartment. Her mother had been worried because she hadn’t been able to reach Shiro. Her mother was the one who found her. She still hasn’t recovered from the shock. And they still haven’t arrested anyone.”

  Tsukuru gasped. Strangled?

  Ao went on. “Shiro’s body was discovered six years ago, on May 12th. By then we rarely got in touch with each other, so I don’t know what sort of life she led in Hamamatsu. I don’t even know why she moved there. When her mother found her, Shiro had already been dead for three days. She’d been lying on the kitchen floor for three days.

  “I went to the funeral in Nagoya,” Ao continued, “and I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like a part of me had died, like I’d turned to stone. But like I said, by this time our group had pretty much split up. We were all adults, with different lives, so there really wasn’t much we could do about it. We weren’t naive high school students anymore. Still, it was sad to see what used to be so fundamental to our lives fade away, and disappear. We’d gone through such an exciting time together, and grown up together.”

  When he inhaled, Tsukuru felt like his lungs were on fire. His tongue felt swollen, as if it were blocking his mouth.

  “Viva Las Vegas!” rang out again on the cell phone, but Ao ignored it and kept walking. That out-of-place, cheery melody kept playing from his pocket, then stopped.

  When they reached the entrance to the Lexus showroom, Ao held out a large hand to shake with Tsukuru. Ao had a strong grip. “I’m glad I could see you,” he said, looking Tsukuru in the eye. Looking people right in the eye when he talked, giving them a good, firm handshake. This hadn’t changed.

  “I’m sorry to have bothered you when you’re so busy,” Tsukuru finally managed to say.

  “No problem. I’d like to see you again, when I have more time. I feel like there’s so much more we should talk about. Make sure you get in touch the next time you’re in Nagoya.”

  “I will. I’m sure we’ll see each other again before too long,” Tsukuru said. “Oh, one more thing. Do you remember a piano piece that Shiro used to play a lot? A quiet, five- or six-minute piece by Franz Liszt called ‘Le mal du pays’?”

  Ao thought for a minute and shook his head. “If I heard the melody, maybe I’d remember. I can’t tell from the title. I don’t know much about classical music. Why do you ask?”

  “I just happened to recall it,” Tsukuru said. “One last question: What in the world does the word ‘Lexus’ mean?”

  Ao laughed. “People ask that a lot. Actually, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a made-up word. An ad agency in New York came up with it at Toyota’s request. It sounds high class, expressive, and has a nice ring to it. What a strange world we live in. Some people plug away at building railroad stations, while others make tons of money cooking up sophisticated-sounding words.”

  “ ‘Industrial refinement’ is the term for it. A trend of the times,” Tsukuru said.

  Ao grinned broadly. “Let’s make sure neither of us gets left behind.”

  They said g
oodbye. Ao went into the showroom, tugging his cell phone out as he strode inside.

  This might be the last time I ever see him, Tsukuru thought as he waited for the signal to change at the crosswalk. A thirty-minute meeting after sixteen years was, arguably, too short a time for such old friends to fully catch up. Surely there was much more that they hadn’t had time to talk about. Still, Tsukuru felt as if they had covered everything important that needed to be said.

  Tsukuru grabbed a taxi, went to the local library, and requested the bound editions of newspapers from six years ago.

  The next morning, a Monday, at ten thirty, Tsukuru visited Aka’s office. The company was located about five kilometers from the Lexus showroom in a modern, glass-enclosed commercial building, where it occupied half of the eighth floor. The other half was taken up by the offices of a well-known German pharmaceutical company. Tsukuru wore the same suit as on the previous day, and the blue tie Sara had given him.

  At the entrance was a huge, smartly designed logo that announced BEYOND. The office was clean, open, and bright. On the wall behind the reception desk hung a large abstract painting, a splash of primary colors. What it was supposed to be was unclear, though it was not terribly puzzling. Aside from that one painting, the office was devoid of decorations. No flowers, no vases. From the entrance alone it was hard to know what sort of business the company was in.

  At the reception desk he was greeted by a young woman in her early twenties, with hair perfectly curled at the ends. She had on a light blue short-sleeved dress and a pearl brooch. The sort of healthy girl lovingly raised in a well-off, optimistic sort of family. She took Tsukuru’s business card, her whole face lighting up in a smile, then pushed an extension number on her phone as if pressing the soft nose of an oversized dog.

  A short while later the inner door opened and a sturdy-looking woman in her mid-forties emerged, dressed in a dark suit with wide shoulders and thick-heeled black pumps. Her features were oddly flawless. Her hair was cut short, her jaw firm, and she looked extremely competent. There are certain middle-aged women who look like they are outstanding at whatever they do, and this woman was one of them. If she were an actress she would play a veteran chief nurse, or the madam of an exclusive escort service.

  She looked at the business card Tsukuru proffered, a hint of doubt crossing her face. What possible business could the deputy section chief of the construction section of the facilities department of a Tokyo-based railroad company have with the CEO of a creative business seminar company in Nagoya? Not to mention showing up without an appointment. But she did not question him about his reasons for visiting.

  “I’m sorry, but I wonder if I could have you wait here for a little while?” she said, mustering the barest minimalist smile. She motioned Tsukuru to take a seat and then vanished through the same door. The chair was a simple Scandinavian design of chrome and white leather. Beautiful, clean, and silent, with not an ounce of warmth, like a fine rain falling under the midnight sun. Tsukuru sat down and waited. The young woman at the reception desk was busy with some sort of task on her laptop. She glanced in his direction from time to time, shooting him an encouraging smile.

  Like the woman at the Lexus dealership, she was a type Tsukuru often saw in Nagoya. Beautiful features, always immaculately dressed, the kind of woman that makes a great impression. Their hair is always nicely curled. They major in French literature at expensive private women’s colleges, and after graduation find jobs as receptionists or secretaries. They work for a few years, visit Paris for shopping once a year with their girlfriends. They finally catch the eye of a promising young man in the company, or else are formally introduced to one, and quit work to get married. They then devote themselves to getting their children into famous private schools. As he sat there, Tsukuru pondered the kind of lives they led.

  In five minutes the middle-aged secretary returned and led him to Aka’s office. Her smile had ratcheted up a notch. Tsukuru could detect a certain respect for someone like him who showed up without an appointment and actually got to see her boss. It had to be a rare occurrence.

  She led him down the hallway with long strides, heels clicking hard and precise like the sounds a faithful blacksmith makes early in the morning. Along the corridor were several doors with thick, opaque glass, but Tsukuru could hear no voices or sounds from the rooms beyond. Compared to his workplace—with its incessantly ringing phones, doors constantly banging open and shut, people yelling—this was a whole other world.

  Aka’s office was surprisingly small and cozy, considering the scale of the company. Inside was a desk, also a Scandinavian design, a small sofa set, and a wooden cabinet. On top of the desk were a sort of objet d’art stainless steel desk light and a Mac laptop. B&O audio components were set above the cabinet, and another large abstract painting that made copious use of primary colors hung on the wall. It looked like it was by the same artist. The window in the office was big and faced the main street, but none of the sound from outside filtered in. Early-summer sunlight fell on the plain carpet on the floor. Gentle, subdued sunlight.

  The room was simple, with a uniform design and nothing extraneous. Each piece of furniture and equipment was clearly high-end, but unlike the Lexus showroom, which went out of its way to advertise luxury, everything here was designed to be low-key and unobtrusive. Expensive anonymity was the basic concept.

  Aka stood up from behind his desk. He had changed a lot from when he was twenty. He was still short, not quite five foot three, but his hair had receded considerably. He’d always had thinnish hair, but now it had become even sparser, his forehead more prominent, as was the shape of his head. As if to compensate for the hair loss, he now had a full beard. Compared to his thin hair, his beard was dark black, the contrast quite striking. His metal-framed glasses, narrow and wide, looked good on his long, oval face. His body was as thin as before, without an ounce of extra weight. He had on a white shirt with narrow pinstripes, and a brown knit tie. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. He wore cream-colored chinos, and soft brown leather loafers with no socks. The whole outfit hinted at a casual, free lifestyle.

  “I’m sorry to barge in on you like this in the morning,” Tsukuru said. “I was afraid if I didn’t, you might not see me.”

  “No way,” Aka said. He held out his hand and shook Tsukuru’s. Unlike Ao’s, his hand was small and soft, his grip gentle. It was not a perfunctory handshake, though, but full of warmth. “How could I ever say no? I’m happy to see you anytime.”

  “But you’re pretty busy, I imagine?”

  “Work keeps me busy, for sure. But this is my company, and I make the ultimate decisions. My schedule can be pretty flexible, if I want it to be. I can take more time with some things, or shorten others. In the end, obviously, the accounts have to balance, and I can’t change the ultimate amount of time we get, of course—only God can do that—but I can make some partial adjustments.”

  “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to talk about some personal things,” Tsukuru said. “But if you’re busy right now, I can come back whenever’s convenient.”

  “Don’t worry about the time. You’ve come all this way. We can take our time and talk here, right now.”

  Tsukuru sat down on the two-person black leather sofa, and Aka sat on the facing chair. Between them was a small oval table with a heavy-looking glass ashtray. Aka picked up Tsukuru’s business card again and studied it, his eyes narrowed.

  “I see. So Tsukuru Tazaki’s dream of building railroad stations came true.”

  “I’d like to say that’s true, but unfortunately I don’t get many opportunities to actually construct a new station,” Tsukuru said. “They rarely build new train lines in Tokyo, so most of the time we rebuild and refurbish existing stations. Making them barrier-free, creating more multifunction restrooms, constructing safety fences, building more shops within the stations, coordinating things so other rail lines can share the tracks.… The social function of stations is changing, so they kee
p us pretty busy.”

  “But still, your job has something to do with railway stations.”


  “Are you married?”

  “No, I’m still single.”

  Aka crossed his legs and brushed away a thread on the cuff of his chinos. “I was married once, when I was twenty-seven. But I got divorced after a year and a half. I’ve been alone ever since. It’s easier being single. You don’t waste a lot of time. Are you the same way?”

  “No, not really. I’d like to get married. I actually have too much spare time on my hands. I’ve just never met the right person.”

  Tsukuru thought of Sara. If it were her, maybe he would feel like marrying. But they both needed to know more about each other first. Both of them needed a little more time.

  “Your business seems to be doing well,” Tsukuru said, glancing around the tidy office.

  Back when they were teenagers, Ao, Aka, and Tsukuru had used the rough, masculine pronouns ore and omae—“I” and “you”—when they talked to each other, but Tsukuru realized now, seeing them sixteen years later, that this form of address no longer felt right. Ao and Aka still called him omae, and referred to themselves as ore, but this casual way of speaking no longer came so easily to Tsukuru.

  “Yes, business is going well at the moment,” Aka said. He cleared his throat. “You know what we do here?”

  “Pretty much. If what’s online is accurate.”

  Aka laughed. “It’s not lies. That’s what we do. The most important part, of course, is all in here.” Aka tapped his temple. “Like with a chef. The most critical ingredient isn’t in the recipe.”

  “The way I understand it, what you mainly do is educate and train human resources for companies.”

  “Exactly. We educate new employees and reeducate mid-level employees. We offer that service to other companies. We create programs tailored to the clients’ wishes, and carry them out efficiently and professionally. It saves companies time and effort.”

  “Outsourcing employee education.”

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