Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
If pressed to identify something special about him, one might notice that his family was the most affluent of the five friends, or that an aunt on his mother’s side was an actress—not a star by any means, but still fairly well known. But when it came to Tsukuru himself, there was not one single quality he possessed that was worth bragging about or showing off to others. At least that was how he viewed himself. Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.
The only real interest he had was train stations. He wasn’t sure why, but for as long as he could remember, he had loved to observe train stations—they had always appealed to him. Huge bullet-train stations; tiny, one-track stations out in the countryside; rudimentary freight-collection stations—it didn’t matter what kind, because as long as it was a railway station, he loved it. Everything about stations moved him deeply.
Like most little boys he enjoyed assembling model trains, but what really fascinated him weren’t the elaborate locomotives or cars, the intricately intersecting rail tracks, or the cleverly designed dioramas. No, it was the models of ordinary stations set down among the other parts, like an afterthought. He loved to watch as the trains passed by the station, or slowed down as they pulled up to the platform. He could picture the passengers coming and going, the announcements on the speaker system, the ringing of the signal as a train was about to depart, the station employees briskly going about their duties. What was real and what was imaginary mingled in his mind, and he’d tremble sometimes with the excitement of it all. But he could never adequately explain to people why he was so attracted to the stations. Even if he could, he knew they would think he was one weird kid. And sometimes Tsukuru himself wondered if something wasn’t exactly right with him.
Though he lacked a striking personality, or any qualities that made him stand out, and despite always aiming for what was average, the middle of the road, there was (or seemed to be) something about him that wasn’t exactly normal, something that set him apart. And this contradiction continued to perplex and confuse him, from his boyhood all the way to the present, when he was thirty-six years old. Sometimes the confusion was momentary and insubstantial, at other times deep and profound.
Sometimes Tsukuru couldn’t understand why he was included in their group of five. Did the others really need him? Wouldn’t they be able to relax and have a better time if he weren’t there? Maybe they just hadn’t realized it yet, and it was only a matter of time before they did? The more he pondered this dilemma, the less he understood. Trying to sort out his value to the group was like trying to weigh something that had no unit value. The needle on the scale wouldn’t settle on a number.
But none of these concerns seemed to bother the other four. Tsukuru could see that they genuinely loved it when all five of them got together as a group. Like an equilateral pentagon, where all sides are the same length, their group’s formation had to be composed of five people exactly—any more or any less wouldn’t do. They believed that this was true.
And naturally Tsukuru was happy, and proud, to be included as one indispensable side of the pentagon. He loved his four friends, loved the sense of belonging he felt when he was with them. Like a young tree absorbing nutrition from the soil, Tsukuru got the sustenance he needed as an adolescent from this group, using it as necessary food to grow, storing what was left as an emergency heat source inside him. Still, he had a constant, nagging fear that someday he would fall away from this intimate community, or be forced out and left on his own. Anxiety raised its head, like a jagged, ominous rock exposed by the receding tide, the fear that he would be separated from the group and end up entirely alone.
“So you really liked railroad stations that much, ever since you were little?” Sara Kimoto asked. She sounded impressed.
Tsukuru nodded cautiously. The last thing he wanted was for her to think he was one of those otaku nerds he knew from the engineering department at work, the kind who were so wrapped up in their jobs that work became their whole worlds. The way the conversation was going, though, she might end up thinking just that. “That’s right,” he admitted. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked stations.”
“You’ve certainly led a very consistent life,” she said. She seemed amused by it, but he couldn’t detect any negativity in her tone.
“Why it had to be stations, I can’t say.”
Sara smiled. “It must be your calling.”
“Maybe so,” Tsukuru said.
How did we wind up talking about this? Tsukuru wondered. That had happened so long ago, and he’d much prefer to wipe it from memory. But Sara, for whatever reason, wanted to hear about his high school days. What kind of student was he, what did he do back then? And before he knew it, he’d segued into talking about his close group of five friends. The four colorful people—and colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.
Sara and Tsukuru were at a bar on the outskirts of Ebisu. They’d had a dinner reservation at a small Japanese-style restaurant that Sara knew, but since she had eaten a late lunch and wasn’t hungry, they canceled the reservation and went out for cocktails instead. Tsukuru wasn’t hungry either and didn’t mind skipping dinner. He wasn’t such a big eater to begin with. He could get by on cheese and nuts at the bar.
Sara was two years older than Tsukuru and worked in a large travel agency. She specialized in package tours abroad and took a lot of business trips overseas. Tsukuru (in his “calling”) worked for a railway company, in a department that oversaw the design of railroad stations in the western part of the Kanto region around Tokyo. So although there was no direct connection between their jobs, in a way they both involved aspects of the transportation industry. He and Sara had met at a party to celebrate his boss’s newly constructed house, where they had exchanged email addresses. This was their fourth date. After dinner on their third date, in what seemed like a natural progression of events, they had gone back to his apartment and made love. Today was one week later, a delicate stage in their burgeoning relationship. If they continued to see each other after this, things would surely get more serious. Tsukuru was thirty-six, Sara thirty-eight. This wasn’t, of course, some high school crush.
From the first time he saw her, Tsukuru had liked Sara’s looks. She wasn’t typically beautiful. Her prominent cheekbones gave her an obstinate look, and her nose was narrow and pointed, but there was something indefinably vital and alive about her face that caught his eye. Her eyes were narrow, but when she really looked at something they suddenly opened wide: two dark eyes, never timid, brimming with curiosity.
He wasn’t normally conscious of it, but there was one part of his body that was extremely sensitive, somewhere along his back. This soft, subtle spot he couldn’t reach was usually covered by something, so that it was invisible to the naked eye. But when, for whatever reason, that spot became exposed and someone’s finger pressed down on it, something inside him would stir. A special substance would be secreted, swiftly carried by his bloodstream to every corner of his body. That special stimulus was both a physical sensation and a mental one, creating vivid images in his mind.
The first time he met Sara, he felt an anonymous finger reach out and push down forcefully on that trigger on his back. The day they met they talked for a long time, though he couldn’t recall much of what they said. What he did recall was the special feeling on his back, and the indefinably thrilling sensation it brought to his mind and body. One part of him relaxed, another part tightened up. That sort of feeling. But what did it mean? Tsukuru thought about this for days, but he was not, by nature, adept at abstract thinking. So Tsukuru emailed Sara and invited her to dinner. He was determined to find out the meaning of that feeling, of that sensation.
Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed. Her clothes were always simple and subdued, but they were lovely and fit her perfectly. Tsukuru could easily imagine, though, that what appeared to be simple outfits had taken much time to choose, and also hadn’t come cheap. Her accessories and makeup, too, were
His two older sisters loved clothes, and when they were young, before they went out on a date, they had grabbed Tsukuru first to get his opinion of their outfit. He wasn’t sure why, but they were very serious about it. What do you think? they’d ask. Do these go well together? And he would give his honest opinion, from a male perspective. His sisters respected his opinion, which made him happy, and before long, this became a habit.
As he sipped his weak highball, Tsukuru mentally undressed Sara. Unhooking the back of her dress, quietly unzipping her. He’d only slept with her once, but it had been wonderful, and fulfilling. Dressed or undressed, she looked five years younger than she was, with pure white skin and beautifully rounded, modestly sized breasts. Leisurely foreplay, caressing her, had been amazing, and after he came, he had felt at peace as he held her close. But that wasn’t all there was to it. He was well aware that there was something more. Making love was a joining, a connection between one person and another. You receive something, and you also have to give.
“What were your high school days like?” Tsukuru asked.
Sara shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about that. It was pretty boring. I’ll tell you about it sometime, but right now, I want to hear about you. What happened to your group of five friends?”
Tsukuru picked up a handful of nuts and tossed a few in his mouth.
“We had several unspoken rules among us, one of them being As much as we possibly can, we do things together, all five of us. We tried to avoid having just two of us, for instance, going off somewhere. Otherwise, we were worried that the group might fall apart. We had to be a centripetal unit. I’m not sure how to put it—we were trying our best to maintain the group as an orderly, harmonious community.”
“An orderly, harmonious community?” Genuine surprise showed in her voice.
Tsukuru blushed a little. “We were in high school, and had all kinds of weird ideas.”
Sara looked intently at Tsukuru, cocking her head a degree or two. “I don’t find it weird. But what was the purpose of that community?”
“The original purpose, like I said, was to help out at an after-school program. This was where we all met and we all felt strongly about it—it remained an important collective goal. But as time passed, simply being a community ourselves became one of our goals, too.”
“You mean maintaining the group itself, and keeping it going, became one of your aims.”
“I guess so.”
Sara narrowed her eyes in a tight line. “Just like the universe.”
“I don’t know much about the universe,” Tsukuru said. “But for us it was very important. We had to protect the special chemistry that had developed among us. Like protecting a lit match, keeping it from blowing out in the wind.”
“The power that happened to arise at that point. Something that could never be reproduced.”
“Like the Big Bang?”
“I’m not sure about that,” Tsukuru said.
Sara took a sip of her mojito and examined the mint leaf from several angles.
“I went to private girls’ schools,” she said, “so I really don’t understand those kind of co-ed groups at public schools. I can’t picture what they’re like. In order for the five of you to maintain that community, so it wouldn’t fall apart, you tried to be as abstinent as you could. Is that how it worked?”
“Abstinent? I’m not sure that’s the right word. It wasn’t something that dramatic. It’s true, though, we were careful to keep relations with the opposite sex out of the group.”
“But you never put that into words,” Sara said.
Tsukuru nodded. “We didn’t verbalize it. It wasn’t like we had rules or anything.”
“What about you? You were with them all the time, so weren’t you attracted at all to Shiro or Kuro? From what you told me, they sound pretty appealing.”
“Both of the girls were appealing in their own way. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to them. But I tried as much as possible not to think of them that way.”
“As much as possible?”
“As much as possible,” Tsukuru said. He felt his cheeks reddening again. “When I couldn’t help thinking of them, I always tried to think of them as a pair.”
“The two of them as a pair?”
Tsukuru paused, searching for the right words. “I can’t really explain it. I thought of them like they were a fictitious being. Like a formless, abstract being.”
“Hmm.” Sara appeared impressed. She thought about it. She seemed to want to say something, but then thought better of it. After a while she spoke.
“So after you graduated from high school you went to college in Tokyo, and left Nagoya. Is that right?”
“That’s right,” Tsukuru said. “I’ve lived in Tokyo ever since.”
“What about the other four?”
“They went to colleges in the Nagoya area. Aka studied in the economics department of Nagoya University, the department where his father taught. Kuro attended a private women’s college famous for its English department. Ao got into business school at a private college that had a well-known rugby team, on the strength of his athletic abilities. Shiro finally was persuaded to give up on being a veterinarian and instead she studied piano in a music school. All four schools were close enough for them to commute from home. I was the only one who went to Tokyo, in my case to an engineering college.”
“Why did you want to go to Tokyo?”
“It’s simple, really. There was a professor at my university who was an expert on railroad station construction. Constructing stations is a specialized field—they have a different structure from other buildings—so even if I went to an ordinary engineering school and studied construction and engineering, it wouldn’t have been of much practical use. I needed to study with a specialist.”
“Having set, specific goals makes life easier,” Sara said.
“So the other four stayed in Nagoya because they didn’t want that beautiful community to break up?”
“When we were seniors in high school, we talked about where we were going to go to college. Except for me, they all planned to stay in Nagoya and go to college there. They didn’t come out and say it exactly, but it was obvious they were doing that because they wanted to keep the group together.”
With his GPA, Aka could have easily gotten into a top school like Tokyo University, and his parents and teachers urged him to try. And Ao’s athletic skills could have won him a place in a well-known university too. Kuro’s personality was well suited to the more sophisticated, intellectually stimulating life she might have found in a cosmopolitan environment, and she should have gone on to one of the private universities in Tokyo. Nagoya, of course, is a large city, but culturally it was much more provincial. In the end, all four of them decided to stay in Nagoya, settling for much less prestigious schools than they could have attended. Shiro was the only one who never would have left Nagoya, even if the group hadn’t existed. She wasn’t the type to venture out on her own in search of a more stimulating environment.
“When they asked me what my plans were,” Tsukuru said, “I told them I hadn’t decided yet. But I’d actually made up my mind to go to school in Tokyo. I mean, if I could have managed to stay back in Nagoya, and halfheartedly study at some so-so college, I would have done it, if it meant I got to stay close to them. In a lot of ways that would have been easier, and that’s actually what my family was hoping I’d do. They sort of expected that after I graduated from college, I’d eventually take over my father’s company. But I knew that if I didn’t go to Tokyo, I’d regret it. I just felt that I had to study with that professor.”
“That makes sense,” Sara said. “So after you decided you’d go to Tokyo, how did the others take it?”
“The chemistry, too.”
“It would have changed into something different. To some extent.”
Yet when his friends realized how determined Tsukuru was to go, they didn’t try to stop him. In fact, they encouraged him. Tokyo was only an hour and a half away by bullet train. He could come back any time he wanted, right? And there’s no guarantee you’ll get into your first-choice school anyway, they said, half kidding him. Passing the entrance exam for that university meant Tsukuru had to buckle down and study like never before.
“So what happened to your group after you all graduated from high school?” Sara asked.
“At first everything went fine. I went back to Nagoya whenever there was a school vacation—spring and fall break, summer vacation and New Year’s—and spent as much time as I could with the others. We were as close as always, and got along well.”
Whenever he was back home, Tsukuru and his friends had lots to catch up on. After he left Nagoya, the other four continued to spend time together, but once he was back in town, they’d revert to their five-person unit (though of course there were times when some of them were busy and only three or four of them could get together). The other four brought him back into the fold, as if there had been no gap in time. Or at least, Tsukuru detected no subtle shift in mood, no invisible distance between them, and that made him very happy. That’s why he didn’t care that he hadn’t made a single friend in Tokyo.
Sara narrowed her eyes and looked at him. “You never made even one friend in Tokyo?”
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