Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  Sara and the man were swallowed up into the evening crowd. Tsukuru kept looking in the direction they had disappeared in, clinging to a faint hope that Sara would return. That she might notice he was there and come back to explain. But she never came. Other people, with different faces and different looks, passed by, one after another.

  He shifted in his chair and gulped down some ice water. All that remained now was a quiet sorrow. He felt a sudden, stabbing pain in the left side of his chest, as if he’d been pierced by a knife. It felt like hot blood was gushing out. Most likely it was blood. He hadn’t felt such pain in a long time, not since the summer of his sophomore year in college, when his four friends had abandoned him. He closed his eyes and, as if floating in water, drifted in that world of pain. Still, being able to feel pain was good, he thought. It’s when you can’t even feel any pain anymore that you’re in real trouble.

  All sorts of sounds mixed together into a sharp, terrible static deep within his ears, the kind of noise that could only be perceived in the deepest possible silence. Not something you can hear from without, but a silence generated from your own internal organs. Everyone has their own special sound they live with, though they seldom have the chance to actually hear it.

  When he opened his eyes again, it was as if the world had been transformed. The plastic table, the plain white coffee cup, the half-eaten sandwich, the old self-winding Heuer watch on his left wrist (the memento from his father), the evening paper he’d been reading, the trees lining the street outside, the show window of the store across the way, growing brighter as evening came on—everything around him looked distorted. The outlines were uncertain, the sense of depth lacking, the scale entirely wrong. He breathed in deeply, again and again, and finally began to calm down.

  The pain he’d felt in his heart didn’t stem from jealousy. Tsukuru knew what jealousy was like. He’d experienced it very vividly once, back in that dream, and the feeling remained with him even now. He knew how suffocating, how hopeless that sensation could be. But the pain he was feeling now was different. All he felt was sorrow, as if he’d been abandoned at the bottom of a deep, dark pit. That’s all it was—sorrow. That, and simple physical pain. He actually found this comforting.

  What hurt him most wasn’t the fact that Sara was walking down the street holding hands with another man. Or the possibility that she might be going to sleep with the man. Of course it pained him to imagine her undressing and getting into bed with someone else. It took great effort to wipe that mental picture from his mind. But Sara was a thirty-eight-year-old, independent woman, single and free. She had her own life, just as Tsukuru had his. She had the right to be with whomever she liked, wherever she wanted, to do whatever she wanted.

  What really shocked him, though, was how happy she looked. When she talked with that man, her whole face lit up. She had never showed such an unguarded expression when she was with Tsukuru, not once. With him, she always maintained a cool, controlled look. More than anything else, that’s what tore, unbearably, at his heart.

  Back in his apartment he got ready for the trip to Finland. Keeping busy would take his mind off things. Not that he had that much luggage to pack—just a few days’ change of clothes, a pouch with toiletries, a couple of books to read on the plane, swimsuit and goggles (which he never went anywhere without), and a folding umbrella. Everything would fit neatly into one carry-on shoulder bag. He didn’t even take a camera. What good were photos? What he was seeking was an actual person, and actual words.

  Once he finished packing, he took out Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage for the first time in ages. The three-record set performed by Lazar Berman, the set Haida had left behind fifteen years before. He still kept an old-style record player for the sole purpose of playing this record. He placed the first LP on the turntable, B side up, and lowered the needle.

  “First Year: Switzerland.” He sat down on the sofa, closed his eyes, and focused on the music. “Le mal du pays” was the eighth piece in the suite, the first track on the B side. Usually he started with that piece and listened until the fourth composition in “Second Year: Italy,” “Petrarch’s Sonnet 47.” At that point, the side ended, and the needle automatically lifted from the record.

  “Le mal du pays.” The quiet, melancholy music gradually gave shape to the undefined sadness enveloping his heart, as if countless microscopic bits of pollen adhered to an invisible being concealed in the air, ultimately revealing, slowly and silently, its shape. This time the being took on the shape of Sara—Sara in her mint-green short-sleeved dress.

  The ache in his heart returned. Not an intense pain, but the memory of intense pain.

  What did you expect? Tsukuru asked himself. A basically empty vessel has become empty once again. Who can you complain to about that? People come to him, discover how empty he is, and leave. What’s left is an empty, perhaps even emptier, Tsukuru Tazaki, all alone. Isn’t that all there is to it?

  Still, sometimes they leave behind a small memento, like Haida and the boxed set of Years of Pilgrimage. He probably didn’t simply forget it, but intentionally left it behind in Tsukuru’s apartment. And Tsukuru loved that music, for it connected him to Haida, and to Shiro. It was the vein that connected these three scattered people. A fragile, thin vein, but one that still had living, red blood coursing through it. The power of music made it possible. Whenever he listened to that music, particularly “Le mal du pays,” vivid memories of the two of them swept over him. At times it even felt like they were right beside him, quietly breathing.

  At a certain point the two of them had vanished from his life. Suddenly, without warning. No—it was less that they had left than that they had deliberately cut him off, abandoned him. Of course that had hurt Tsukuru deeply, and that wound remained to this day. But in the end, wasn’t it the two of them—Shiro and Haida—who had, in a real sense of the term, been wounded or injured? Recently, that view had taken hold of his mind.

  Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing inside of me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow.

  The final strains of “Petrarch’s Sonnet 47” vanished in the air, the recording ended, and the needle automatically lifted, moved to the side, returned to the armrest. He lowered the needle back to the beginning of the B side of the LP. The needle quietly traced the grooves of the record and once more Lazar Berman was playing, beautifully, ever so delicately.

  He listened to the whole side again, then changed into pajamas and got into bed. He switched off the light beside his bed, and once more felt grateful that what had taken hold of his heart was a deep sorrow, not the yoke of intense jealousy. That would have snatched away any hope for sleep.

  Finally sleep came, wrapping him in its embrace.

  For several fleeting moments he felt that familiar softness throughout his body. This, too, was one of the few things Tsukuru felt thankful for that night.

  In the midst of sleep he heard birds calling out in the night.

  As soon as he arrived at the Helsinki airport, Tsukuru exchanged his yen for euros, found a cell phone store, and bought the most basic, prepaid phone they had. This done, he walked out of the terminal, his carry-on bag hanging from his shoulder, and walked to the taxi stand. He got into a taxi, an older model Mercedes-Benz, and told the driver the name of his hotel in the city.

  They left the airport and drove onto the highway. Though this was Tsukuru’s first trip abroad, neither the deep green woods they passed nor the billboards in Finnish gave him the sense he had come—for the first time ever—to a foreign country. Obviously it took much longer to come here than to go to Nagoya, but he felt no different than when he’d gone back to his hometown. Only the currency in his wallet had changed. He wore his usual outfit—chinos, b
lack polo shirt, sneakers, and a light brown cotton jacket. He’d brought the bare minimum when it came to extra clothes. He figured if he needed anything more, he could always buy it.

  “Where are you from?” asked the taxi driver in English, shooting Tsukuru a glance in the rearview mirror. He was a middle-aged man with a full, thick beard.

  “Japan,” Tsukuru replied.

  “That’s a long way to come with so little luggage.”

  “I don’t like heavy baggage.”

  The driver laughed. “Who does? But before you know it, you’re surrounded by it. That’s life. C’est la vie.” And again, he laughed happily.

  Tsukuru laughed along with him.

  “What kind of work do you do?” the driver asked.

  “I build railroad stations.”

  “You’re an engineer?”


  “And you came to Finland to build a station?”

  “No, I came here on vacation to visit a friend.”

  “That’s good,” the driver said. “Vacations and friends are the two best things in life.”

  Did all Finns like to make clever witticisms about life? Or was it just this one driver? Tsukuru hoped it was the latter.

  Thirty minutes later, when the taxi pulled up in front of a hotel in downtown Helsinki, Tsukuru wasn’t sure whether or not he should add a tip. He realized he hadn’t checked this in the guidebook (or anything else about Finland, in fact). He added a little under 10 percent of what the meter said and gave it to the driver. The driver looked pleased and handed him a blank receipt, so it was probably the right decision. Even if it wasn’t, the driver clearly wasn’t upset.

  The hotel Sara had chosen for him was an old-fashioned place in the center of the city. A handsome blond bellboy escorted him via an antique elevator to his room on the fourth floor. The furniture was old, the bed substantial, the walls covered with faded wallpaper with a pine needle pattern. There was an old claw-foot tub, and the windows opened vertically. The drapes were thick, with a thin lace curtain over the window. The whole place had a faintly nostalgic odor. Through the window, he could see green tram cars running down the middle of a broad boulevard. Overall, a comfortable, relaxing room. There was no coffee maker or LCD TV, but Tsukuru didn’t mind. He wouldn’t have used them anyway.

  “Thank you. This room is fine,” Tsukuru told the bellboy, and handed him two one-euro coins as a tip. The bellboy grinned and softly slipped out of the room like a clever cat.

  • • •

  By the time he’d showered and changed, it was already evening. Outside, though, it was still bright as noon. A distinct half moon hung above, like a battered piece of pumice stone that had been tossed by someone and gotten stuck in the sky.

  He went to the concierge desk in the lobby and got a free city map from the red-haired woman working there. He told her the address of Sara’s travel agency, and the woman marked it in pen on the map. It was less than three blocks from the hotel. He followed the concierge’s advice and bought a pass that was good for the city buses, subway, and streetcars. She told him how to ride these, and gave him a map of the lines. The woman looked to be in her late forties. She had light green eyes, and was very kind. Every time he talked with an older woman, Tsukuru got a natural, calm feeling. This seemed true no matter where in the world he found himself.

  He went to a quiet corner of the lobby and used the cell phone he had bought at the airport to call Kuro’s apartment in the city. The phone went to voicemail. A man’s deep voice spoke in Finnish for about twenty seconds and then there was a beep where he could leave a message, but Tsukuru hung up without saying anything. He waited a while and dialed again, with the same result. The voice on the message was probably Kuro’s husband. Tsukuru had no idea what he was saying, of course, but he got an impression of a straightforward, positive person. The voice of a healthy man who lived a comfortable, relaxed life.

  Tsukuru hung up, put the phone back in his pocket, and took a deep breath. He didn’t have a good feeling about this. Kuro might not be in the apartment now. She had a husband and two small children. It was July, and maybe, as Sara had thought, the whole family had decamped on a summer vacation to Majorca.

  It was six thirty. The travel agency Sara had told him about was no doubt closed, but it couldn’t hurt to try them. He took the cell phone out again and dialed the office number. Surprisingly, someone was still there.

  A woman’s voice answered in Finnish.

  “Excuse me, is Olga there?” Tsukuru asked in English.

  “I’m Olga,” the woman replied in unaccented English.

  Tsukuru introduced himself and explained that Sara had suggested that he call.

  “Yes, Mr. Tazaki. Sara told me about you,” Olga said.

  Tsukuru explained the situation. How he’d come to see a friend, but when he called her, all he got was a recording in Finnish.

  “Are you at your hotel now?”

  “I am,” Tsukuru said.

  “I’m about to close the office for the day. I can be over there in a half hour. Can we meet in the lobby?”

  • • •

  Olga was blond and wore tight jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt. She looked to be in her late twenties. She stood about five foot seven and had a full face with a rosy complexion. She looked liked a girl born to a well-off farming family, raised with a gaggle of garrulous geese. Her hair was pulled back, and a black enamel bag dangled from her shoulder. She had good posture, like a courier with an important package to deliver, and took long strides as she walked into the hotel.

  They shook hands and sat down next to each other on a sofa in the middle of the lobby.

  Sara had been to Helsinki a number of times, and each time she visited, she had worked with Olga. So Olga was not only a business partner but also, it seemed, a friend.

  “I haven’t seen Sara for a while. How is she?” Olga asked.

  “She’s fine,” Tsukuru replied. “Work keeps her busy, and she’s always flying off somewhere.”

  “When she called me she said you were a close, personal friend.”

  Tsukuru smiled. A close, personal friend, he repeated to himself.

  “I’ll be happy to help in any way I can. Don’t hesitate to ask.” Olga beamed and looked him right in the eye.

  “Thank you.” He felt like she was sizing him up, deciding if he was good enough to be Sara’s boyfriend. He hoped that he passed the test.

  “If you don’t mind, let me listen to the message,” Olga said.

  Tsukuru took out his cell phone and dialed the number for Kuro’s apartment. Olga, meanwhile, took out a memo pad and a thin gold pen from her bag and placed them on her lap. As soon as he heard it ring he handed her the phone. Olga listened to the message, with a serious look on her face, and quickly noted down the requisite information. Then she hung up. She seemed like a smart, capable woman, and Tsukuru could imagine her and Sara getting along well.

  “The voice is the woman’s husband, I think,” Olga said. “Last Friday they left their apartment and went to their summer cottage. They won’t be back until the middle of August. He gave the phone number for the cottage.”

  “Is it far away?”

  She shook her head. “He didn’t say where it is. What we know from the message is just the phone number, and that it’s in Finland. If you call the number, you should be able to find out where it is.”

  “If you could do that for me, I’d really appreciate it. But I do have one request,” Tsukuru said. “I don’t want you to mention my name on the phone. If possible, I’d like to visit her without her knowing that I’m coming.”

  Olga seemed curious.

  Tsukuru explained. “She’s a really good friend of mine from high school, but I haven’t seen her for a long time. I don’t think she has any idea that I came to see her. I’m hoping to surprise her.”

  “A surprise,” she said, opening her hands on her lap palms up. “That sounds like a lot of fun.”

I hope she’ll agree.”

  “Was she your girlfriend?” Olga asked.

  Tsukuru shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that kind of relationship. We belonged to the same group of friends. That’s all. But we were very close.”

  She inclined her head a bit. “Good friends in high school are hard to come by. I had one good friend in high school. We still see each other often.”

  Tsukuru nodded.

  “And your friend married a Finnish man and moved here. You haven’t seen her for a long time. Is that correct?”

  “I haven’t seen her for sixteen years.”

  Olga rubbed her temple with her index finger a couple of times. “I understand. I’ll try to get her address without mentioning your name. I’ll think of a good way. Can you tell me her name?”

  Tsukuru wrote down Kuro’s name in her memo pad.

  “What’s the name of the town your high school was in?”

  “Nagoya,” Tsukuru told her.

  Olga took his cell phone again and dialed the number given on the answering machine. The phone rang a few times, and then someone answered. Olga spoke to the person in Finnish, using a friendly tone. She explained something, the other person asked her a question, and again she gave a concise explanation. She said the name Eri several times. After a few rounds of this, the other person seemed convinced. Olga picked up her ballpoint pen and noted something down. She politely thanked the person and hung up.

  “It worked,” she said.

  “I’m glad.”

  “Their last name is Haatainen. The husband’s first name is Edvard. He’s spending the summer at their lakeside cottage outside a town called Hämeenlinna, northwest of Helsinki. Eri and the children are with him, of course.”

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