Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  In a sense, Eri was a refugee from life as well. She too carried emotional scars, scars that had led her to leave everything behind and abandon her country. She had chosen a new world, Finland, on her own. And now she had a husband and two daughters, as well as her work making pottery, work in which she completely immersed herself. She had a summer cottage by the lake, and a small, chipper dog. She’d learned Finnish, and was steadily constructing her own little universe. That makes her different from me, Tsukuru thought.

  He glanced at the Heuer watch on his left wrist. It was 8:50. Passengers had begun boarding the express train. One after another, people dragged their luggage aboard, plunking themselves down in their designated seats, stowing their bags in the overhead racks, settling down in the air-conditioned cars, sipping cold drinks.

  He could see them through the windows of the train. He’d inherited the watch from his father. One of the few tangible things he’d received. It was a beautiful antique, from the early 1960 s. If you didn’t wear it for three days, the mechanism would wind down and the hands would stop. An inconvenience, but that’s what Tsukuru liked about it. It was a purely mechanical device, a piece of craftsmanship. No quartz or a single microchip inside, everything operated by delicate springs and gears. It had been working faithfully, without a rest, for a half century and was, even now, surprisingly accurate.

  Tsukuru had never bought a watch himself, not once in his whole life. When he was young, someone inevitably gave him a cheap one, which he used without much thought. As long as it kept the right time, he didn’t care what he wore. That was the extent of his feelings for watches. A simple Casio digital watch did the trick. So when his father died, and he was given this expensive wristwatch as a keepsake, again it aroused no special feelings one way or the other. He had to make sure to wear it regularly, so it didn’t wind down, but once he got used to this, he found he had a great fondness for the watch. He enjoyed the weight and heft of it, the faint mechanical whir it made. He found himself checking the time more often than before, and each time he did, his father’s shadow passed, faintly, through his mind.

  Truth be told, he didn’t remember his father all that well, nor did he have particularly warm memories of him. He could not recall ever going anywhere with his father, from the time he was small until he was grown up, or even having a friendly talk, just the two of them. His father was basically an uncommunicative person (at least, at home, he barely spoke), and besides, work kept him so busy that he was rarely around. Only now did Tsukuru realize that his father might have been keeping a mistress somewhere.

  To Tsukuru he felt less like his real father than like some well-placed relative who often visited. Tsukuru was essentially raised by his mother and his two older sisters. He knew next to nothing about what sort of life his father had led, his thoughts and values, and what he actually did day to day. What he did know was that his father had been born in Gifu, had lost both parents while still a boy, was taken in by a paternal uncle who was a Buddhist priest, managed to graduate from high school, started a company from scratch, had tremendous success, and ultimately built up a substantial fortune. Unlike most people who had struggled in life, he preferred not to dwell on the trials he’d gone through, perhaps not wishing to relive the hard times. At any rate, it was clear that his father had an extraordinary head for business, the talent to immediately obtain what he needed, and jettison everything he didn’t. Tsukuru’s oldest sister had, in part, inherited this talent for business from her father, while the younger sister had also, in part, inherited her mother’s cheerful sociability. Neither of these qualities had been passed on to Tsukuru.

  His father had smoked over fifty cigarettes a day, and had died of lung cancer. When Tsukuru went to visit him at the hospital in Nagoya, he could no longer speak. His father seemed to want to tell him something, but couldn’t do so. A month later he died in his hospital bed. His father left him the one-bedroom condo in Jiyugaoka, a bank account with a fair amount of money in his name, and this Heuer self-winding wristwatch.

  No, there was one other thing his father had left him. His name—Tsukuru Tazaki.

  When Tsukuru announced that he wanted to study at an engineering college in Tokyo, his father seemed deeply disappointed that his only son had no interest in taking over the real estate business he had worked so hard to build. Still, he fully supported Tsukuru’s desire to become an engineer. “If that’s what you want,” his father had told him, “then you should go to the college in Tokyo, and I’ll be happy to pay for it. Learning a technical skill and building real objects is a good thing. It contributes to society. Study hard,” he’d said, “and build as many stations as you like.” His father seemed pleased that the name he’d chosen—Tsukuru—had turned out to be so appropriate. This was probably the first and last time Tsukuru had made his father happy, certainly the only time he had seen his father so openly pleased.

  At exactly 9 p.m., right on schedule, the express train for Matsumoto pulled away from the platform. Seated on the bench, Tsukuru watched as its lights faded down the tracks, as the train sped up and finally disappeared into the summer night. Once the last car was no longer visible, everything around him felt suddenly deserted. Even the lights of the city seemed to have faded a notch, like when a play is over and the lights go out after the last act. He got up from the bench and slowly made his way down the stairs.

  He left Shinjuku Station, went into a nearby restaurant, sat at the counter, and ordered meatloaf and potato salad. He barely finished half of each. Not that the food tasted bad. This restaurant was famous for its delicious meatloaf. He just had no appetite. As always, he only finished half his beer.

  He rode the train home and took a shower, and carefully scrubbed his whole body with soap. He then put on an olive-green bathrobe (a gift from a girlfriend back on his thirtieth birthday) and sat down on a chair on the balcony, letting the night breeze waft over him as he listened to the muffled din of the city. It was nearly 11 p.m., but he wasn’t tired.

  Tsukuru remembered those days in college when all he’d thought about was dying. Already sixteen years ago. Back then he was convinced that if he merely focused on what was going on inside of him, his heart would finally stop of its own accord. That if he intensely concentrated his feelings on one fixed point, like a lens focused on paper, bursting it into flames, his heart would suffer a fatal blow. More than anything he hoped for this. But months passed, and contrary to his expectation, his heart didn’t stop. The heart apparently doesn’t stop that easily.

  From far off in the distance, he heard a helicopter. It seemed to be getting nearer, the sound growing louder. He looked up at the sky, trying to catch sight of it. It felt like a messenger bringing some vital news. But he never saw it, the sound of the propellers fading, then disappearing completely to the west, leaving behind only the soft, vague hum of the city at night.

  Maybe back then Shiro had been hoping to break up their group. This possibility suddenly struck him. Seated on a chair on the balcony, he slowly filled out this hypothesis.

  Their group in high school had been so close, so very tight. They accepted each other as they were, understood each other, and each of them found a deep contentment and happiness in their relationship, their little group. But such bliss couldn’t last forever. At some point paradise would be lost. They would each mature at different rates, take different paths in life. As time passed, an unavoidable sense of unease would develop among them, a subtle fault line, no doubt turning into something less than subtle.

  Shiro’s nerves might not have been able to stand the pressure of what had to come, the trauma of the inevitable end of this tight-knit group of friends. She may have felt she had to unravel the emotional bonds of the group herself or else be caught up, fatally, in its collapse, like a castaway sucked down into the abyss by the whirlpool of a sinking ship.

  Tsukuru could, to an extent, understand that feeling. Now he could, that is. The tension of suppressed sexual feelings began to take on greate
r significance than Tsukuru could imagine. The graphic sexual dreams he had later were probably an extension of that tension. And that tension must have had some effect—what, exactly, he had no idea—on the other four as well.

  Shiro had wanted to escape from that situation. Maybe she couldn’t stand that kind of relationship anymore, the close relationship that required constant maintenance of one’s feelings. Shiro was, unquestionably, the most sensitive of the five, so she must have picked up on that friction before anyone else. But she was unable, at least on her own, to escape outside that circle. She didn’t possess the strength. So she set Tsukuru up as the apostate. At that point, Tsukuru was the first member to step outside the circle, the weakest link in the community. To put it another way, he deserved to be punished. So when someone raped her (who did it and what the circumstances were behind her rape and subsequent pregnancy would remain eternal mysteries), in the midst of the hysteric confusion brought on by shock, she ripped away that weakest link, like yanking the emergency cord to stop a train.

  Viewed in this way, many things fell into place. Back then Shiro followed her instincts and chose Tsukuru as a stepping stone, a way for her to reach outside the walls of their group. Shiro must have had a gut feeling that Tsukuru, even put in that awful position, would be able to survive—just as Eri, too, had arrived at the same conclusion.

  Tsukuru Tazaki, always cool and collected, always doing things at his own pace.

  Tsukuru got up from the chair on the balcony and went inside. He took a bottle of Cutty Sark from a shelf, poured some into a glass, then carried it back out to the porch. He sat down again and, for a time, pressed the fingers of his right hand against his temple.

  No, he thought, I’m not cool and collected, and I’m not always doing things at my own pace. It’s just a question of balance. I’m just good at habitually shifting the weight I carry around from one side of the fulcrum to the other, distributing it. Maybe this strikes others as cool. But it isn’t an easy operation. It takes more time than it seems. And even if I do find the right balance, that doesn’t lessen the total weight one bit.

  And yet he was able to forgive Shiro, or Yuzu. She carried within her a deep wound and had only been trying, desperately, to protect herself. She was a weak person, someone who lacked the hard, tough exterior with which to guard herself. It was all she could do to find a safe refuge when danger came, and she couldn’t be particular about the methods. Who could blame her? But in the end, no matter how far she ran, she couldn’t escape, for the dark shadow of violence followed her relentlessly. What Eri dubbed an evil spirit. And on a quiet, cold, and rainy May night, it knocked at her door, and strangled her lovely slim throat. In a place, and time, that had, most likely, already been decided.

  Tsukuru went back inside, picked up the phone, and without thinking much about what he was doing, pushed the speed-dial number for Sara. The phone rang three times before he thought better of it and hung up. It was already late. And he would be seeing her tomorrow. Then he would see her and talk to her in person. He shouldn’t short-circuit the process before he saw her. He knew that. Still, he wanted to hear Sara’s voice, right now. The feeling welled up inside him so overwhelmingly that it was hard to suppress the urge.

  He placed the record of Lazar Berman’s performance of Years of Pilgrimage on the turntable, and lowered the needle. He turned his attention to the music. The scene of the lakeside at Hämeenlinna came to him. The white lace curtain rustling in the breeze, the sound of the little boat rocked by the waves, slapping against the pier. The birds in the forest patiently teaching their tiny bird babies how to chirp. The citrusy smell Eri’s shampoo had left on her hair. The dense weight of the life force, the will to survive, within the ample softness of her breasts. The hard phlegm spat out in the weeds by the dour old man who’d shown him the way. The dog wagging its tail excitedly as it leaped into the back of the Renault. As he traced memories of these scenes, the pain in his chest that he’d felt returned once more.

  Tsukuru drank the Cutty Sark, savoring the fragrance. His stomach grew faintly warm. From the summer of his sophomore year in college until the following winter, when every day brought thoughts of dying and nothing else, he’d had one small glass of whiskey at night like this. Without it, he hadn’t been able to sleep.

  The phone suddenly rang. He stood up from the sofa, gently raised the needle from the record, and stood in front of the phone. It had to be Sara. No one else would call him at this hour of night. She knew he’d called and was calling him back. As the phone rang a dozen times Tsukuru hesitated, unsure if he should answer. He bit his lip hard, held his breath, and stared intently at the phone, like a person standing far away, off studying the details of a difficult formula on a blackboard, trying to puzzle it out. But he could find no clues. The phone stopped ringing, followed by silence. A deep, suggestive silence.

  To fill in the silence Tsukuru lowered the needle onto the record again, went back to the sofa, and settled in to listen to the music. This time he tried his best not to think of anything in particular. With his eyes closed and his mind a blank, he focused solely on the music. Finally, as if lured in by the melody, images flashed behind his eyelids, one after the next, appearing, then disappearing. A series of images without concrete form or meaning, rising up from the dark margins of consciousness, soundlessly crossing into the visible realm, only to be sucked back into the margins on the other side and vanish once again. Like the mysterious outline of microorganisms swimming across the circular field of vision of a microscope.

  Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again, and again he did not answer it. This time he stayed seated, listening to the music, gazing at the black phone. He didn’t count how many times it rang. Eventually it stopped, and all he could hear was the music.

  Sara, he thought. I want to hear your voice. I want to hear it more than anything. But right now I can’t talk.

  Tomorrow Sara may choose that other man, not me, Tsukuru thought as he lay down on the sofa and closed his eyes. It’s entirely possible, and for her it may well be the right choice.

  What kind of person this other man was, what sort of relationship they had, how long they’d been seeing each other—all of this Tsukuru had no way of knowing. And he didn’t want to know, either. One thing he could say at this point was this: he had very little he could give her. Limited in amount, and in kind, the contents negligible. Would anybody really want the little he had to give?

  Sara said she has feelings for me. He had no reason to doubt it. But there are countless things in the world for which affection is not enough. Life is long, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes victims are needed. Someone has to take on that role. And human bodies are fragile, easily damaged. Cut them, and they bleed.

  If Sara doesn’t choose me tomorrow, he thought, I may really die. Die in reality, or die figuratively—there isn’t much difference between the two. But this time I definitely will take my last breath. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki will lose any last hint of color and quietly exit the world. All will become a void, the only thing that remains a hard, frozen clump of dirt.

  It doesn’t matter. The same thing has nearly happened a few times already, and it wouldn’t be strange if it actually did this time. It’s just a physical phenomenon, no more. The spring on a wound watch gets steadily looser, the torque grows closer and closer to zero, until the gears stop altogether and the hands come to rest at a set position. Silence descends. Isn’t that all it is?

  He slipped into bed just before the date changed, and switched off the bedside lamp. How nice it would be to dream of Sara, Tsukuru thought. An erotic dream. Or one that wasn’t—either would be good. If possible, though, a dream that wasn’t too sad. A dream in which he could touch her body would be more than he could ask for. It was, after all, just a dream.

  He longed for her more than he could say. It was a wonderful thing to be able to truly want someone like this—the feeling was so real, so overpowering. He hadn’t felt this way in ages. Maybe he
never had before. Not that everything about it was wonderful: his chest ached, he found it hard to breathe, and a fear, a dark oscillation, had hold of him. But now even that kind of ache had become an important part of the affection he felt. He didn’t want to let that feeling slip from his grasp. Once lost, he might never happen across that warmth again. If he had to lose it, he would rather lose himself.

  Tsukuru, you need to hang on to her. No matter what. If you let her go now, you might not ever have anyone else in your life.

  Eri was right. No matter what, he had to make Sara his. But this wasn’t something he could decide on his own. It was a question decided by two people, between one heart and another. Something had to be given, and something had to be accepted. Everything depends on tomorrow. If Sara chooses me, accepts me, he thought, I’m going to propose to her right away. And give her everything I’m capable of giving—every single thing. Before I get lost in a dark forest. Before the bad elves grab me.

  Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tsukuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye at the lakeside in Finland. But at that point, he couldn’t put it into words.

  We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something—with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

  He calmed himself, shut his eyes, and fell asleep. The rear light of consciousness, like the last express train of the night, began to fade into the distance, gradually speeding up, growing smaller until it was, finally, sucked into the depths of the night, where it disappeared. All that remained was the sound of the wind slipping through a stand of white birch trees.


  Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. His work has been translated into more than fifty languages, and the most recent of his many international honors is the Jerusalem Prize, whose previous recipients include J. M. Coetzee, Milan Kundera, and V. S. Naipaul.

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